McCain, Obama Offer Two Paths On Mideast Policy 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.
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McCain, Obama Offer Two Paths On Mideast Policy

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McCain, Obama Offer Two Paths On Mideast Policy

McCain, Obama Offer Two Paths On Mideast Policy

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Deborah Amos.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning. Renee Montagne is away. The war in Iraq is not the only foreign-policy issue that's a minefield for the presidential candidates. This morning, we're going to examine some of their views on the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

No matter what else happens in the world, that conflict is almost guaranteed to demand the next president's time. Senator Barack Obama has pledged to take a personal role, but he's already caused some controversy, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN: There was one line in Barack Obama's speech to the pro-Israel lobby, AIPAC, in June that won the most applause in the room and caused a bit of an uproar in the Arab world.

(Soundbite of applause)

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Democratic Presidential Candidate): The Palestinians need a state that is contiguous and cohesive and that allows them to prosper. 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.

(Soundbite of applause)

KELEMEN: 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.

His top foreign policy adviser, Susan Rice, said his statement was misunderstood in some quarters, and she insisted he knows that this is a so-called final status issue. He just doesn't want to see barbed wire wind through Jerusalem.

Ms. SUSAN RICE (Top Foreign Policy Advisor, Senator Barack Obama): It's an issue to be negotiated by the parties, not one that Senator Obama presumed to pronounce on at AIPAC or anywhere else. It's 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 wire and the like.

Mr. RANDY SCHEUNEMANN (Top Foreign Policy Advisor, Senator John McCain): Sometimes it is hard to know how to contrast a position with Senator Obama because his positions are changing so frequently.

KELEMEN: That's Randy Scheunemann, the top foreign policy adviser to Republican John McCain. Scheunemann saw Obama's comments on Jerusalem as yet another opportunity to paint the Illinois Democrat as naive on foreign policy.

Mr. SCHEUNEMANN: I think what happened is they, for some reason, didn't anticipate the obvious reaction that making a statement that Jerusalem should be the undivided capital, and they changed on a dime. And I think that reflects inexperience in approaching the issues.

KELEMEN: As to McCain's position, Scheunemann offered a carefully worded statement that moved little beyond current U.S. policy.

Mr. SCHEUNEMANN: Senator McCain has said that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, that it is undivided today, that we should move our embassy there, and that if a democratic government of Israel chooses to accept an alteration of that status, that he's certainly not going to second-guess a democratic government of Israel.

KELEMEN: The U.S. embassy is currently in Tel Aviv, and though Congress voted to move it to Jerusalem, Presidents Bush and Clinton before him have avoided that 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 looks unlikely. And Senator Obama has criticized the current administration for staying on the sidelines too long.

Sen. OBAMA: I won't wait until the waning days of my presidency. 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.

KELEMEN: Obama has tried to distance himself from President Bush's approach to the Arab-Israeli issue, saying, for instance, he would encourage, not discourage, Israeli-Syrian peace talks.

The Arab-Israeli peace process does not figure prominently in Senator McCain's speeches, like the one he gave to the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC in June. He said only this:

Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona; Republican Presidential Candidate): 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.

KELEMEN: McCain once blasted Obama as the favorite candidate of the Palestinian militant group Hamas, but Obama insists he wouldn't make room for a terrorist group at the negotiating table.

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. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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