Not since Yitzhak Rabin's funeral has Israel hosted as many senior officials from abroad as it has this year. There was U.S. President George W. Bush (twice), German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. And yet, the visit by presumptive U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama, who landed here for a lightning stay last night, has aroused more interest than any of them. Even more than Carla Bruni.
Four months ago, presumptive Republican candidate Senator John McCain visited Israel, and created a precedent. It was the first time a U.S. presidential candidate came to the Middle East in the midst of the campaign. But the 2008 race for the White House is different. It brings together two generations, two social groups, and two approaches for dealing with the world's problems.
Israelis don't interest McCain and Obama. Rather, it is their Jewish voters and contributors at home. Barack Hussein Obama - with his Muslim stepfather and his childhood in Indonesia, his suggestion to meet with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the leftist image that adheres to his advisors - has raised deep anxieties among the Jewish establishment. Republicans sensed a massive defection of Jewish voters. Obama's campaign managers have identified it as a problem and their candidate has been working on calming things down and issuing pro-Israel statements. McCain visited Sderot and expressed his support for Israel. Obama will follow in his footsteps Wednesday, as the city is experiencing a rare moment of lull. But Obama will also have a chance to denounce terror in real time: Tuesday's bulldozer terror attack took place next to his hotel in Jerusalem.
To the Israeli establishment, McCain seems like the natural choice. With his white hair, expression lines and combat experience, he embodies the Israeli concept of leadership - a kind of American version of Yitzhak Rabin or Ariel Sharon. If McCain continues Bush's policies, Israel will benefit from the term of another U.S. president who understands its needs.
Obama represents an exciting option, albeit a more dangerous one: If he manages to rehabilitate America's international stature, reduce its dependence on oil and push through peace between Israel and the Arabs, Israel's strategic situation will improve dramatically. But on the way, he might have to pressure Israel. If he fails, Israel will have to pay the price without reaping any returns.
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