Comparing Middle East Policies
McCain: He has said he would take a "hands-on" approach to the peace process. McCain says American support for Israel should intensify, which includes providing necessary military equipment and technology to ensure a qualitative Israeli military edge. McCain believes the U.S. should continue to support talks between the Israeli government and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. McCain also believes that sanctioning Iran in response to its threats on Israel would be most effective.
Obama: He has pledged to take an active role in the mediation between Israelis and Palestinians and he supports a two-state solution, so long as Israel's identity as a Jewish state remains. Obama supports foreign assistance to Israel and he says he would encourage Israeli-Syrian peace talks. He says he would not negotiate with terrorist group Hamas.
McCain: Randy Scheunemann advises John McCain and is a former member of the Project for A New American Century and an adviser to former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Scheunemann is the founder and president of public relations firm Orion Strategies.
Obama: He is advised by Susan Rice, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for African Affairs under President Clinton. A Rhodes Scholar, she is currently on leave from the Brookings Institution, where she is a senior fellow researching transnational security threats and the security implications of globalization.
America's role as a mediator between Israelis and Palestinians has been a divisive issue on the campaign trail, with Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain differing in approaches to handling the tense political situation in the Middle East.
Obama's pledge to take on a personal role in the mediation efforts has already caused some controversy. One line in his speech to the pro-Israel lobby, AIPAC, in June won applause in the room but caused an uproar in the Arab world.
"The Palestinians need a state that is contiguous and cohesive and that allows them to prosper," Obama told AIPAC. "But any agreement with the Palestinian people must preserve Israel's identity as a Jewish state, with secure, recognized defensible borders — and Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided."
The status of Jerusalem is one of the thorniest issues in the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians, and Obama seemed to taking sides with Israel.
The Status of Jerusalem
His top foreign policy adviser, Susan Rice, said his statement was misunderstood in some quarters. She insisted Obama knows that this is a final status issue — he just does not want to see barbed wire wind through Jerusalem.
"It is an issue that is to be negotiated by the parties," Rice said, "not one that Sen. Obama presumed to pronounce on at AIPAC or anywhere else. It is a final status issue: Jerusalem ought to be Israel's capital, and it should not be re-divided, as it once was for many years between '48 and '67, with checkpoints and barbed wires and the like."
Randy Scheunemann, John McCain's top foreign policy adviser, saw Obama's comments on Jerusalem as yet another opportunity to paint the Illinois Democrat as naïve on foreign policy.
"Sometimes it is hard to know how to contrast a position with Sen. Obama, because his positions are changing so frequently," Scheunemann said.
He added, "I think what happened is that for some reason, they didn't anticipate the obvious reaction to making the statement that Jerusalem should be the undivided capital, and they changed on a dime. And that reflects inexperience in approaching the issues."
Two Takes on Current U.S. Policy
As to McCain's position on Israel, Scheunemann offered a carefully worded statement that moved little beyond current U.S. policy.
"Sen. McCain has said that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, that it is undivided today, that we should move our embassy there," Scheunemann said. "And if a democratic government of Israel chooses to accept an alteration of that status, he's certainly not going to second-guess a democratic government of Israel."
The U.S. embassy is currently in Tel Aviv, and though Congress voted to move it to Jerusalem, both Presidents Bush and Clinton have avoided the move so as not to anger Palestinians, who want east Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.
President Bush had been hoping the two sides could agree on the contours of a Palestinian state by the time he leaves office, but that goal now looks unlikely.
Obama, meanwhile, has criticized the Bush administration for staying on the sidelines too long.
"I won't wait until the waning days of my presidency," Obama said. "I will take an active role and make a personal commitment to do all I can to advance the cause of peace from the start of my administration."
Approaches to Peace Talks
Obama has tried to distance himself from President Bush's approach to the Arab-Israeli issue, saying he would encourage, not discourage, Israeli-Syrian peace talks.
The Arab-Israeli peace process does not figure prominently in McCain's speeches. In an address to AIPAC in June, McCain said, "While we encourage this process, we must also ensure that Israel's people can live in safety until there is a Palestinian leadership willing and able to deliver peace."
McCain once blasted Obama as the favorite candidate of the Palestinian militant group Hamas. But, Obama insists he would not make room for a terrorist group at the negotiating table.
What is certain is that whoever becomes president will inherit a mess in the Middle East: Hamas controls Gaza and refuses to recognize Israel's right to exist, and more moderate Palestinians complain that the rate of Israeli settlement-building in the West Bank will soon make a viable Palestinian state impossible.