Mark Lavie
The Associated Press
July 25, 2008 - 2:15pm

Both Israelis and Palestinians came away from Barack Obama's visit to the Holy Land with the feeling he would do more for Mideast peace than President Bush has. But neither side seemed fully convinced that Obama would have their interests at heart.

Israelis fear that an Obama administration would be too soft on Iran and too hard on them, and his visit didn't seem to fully dispel those concerns. And Palestinians spoke of a clear bias toward Israel.

"Instead of running away from the Middle Eastern issues, he intends to place them on the top of his diplomatic list of priorities," Israeli commentator Nahum Barnea wrote in the Yediot Ahronot daily.

The Democratic presidential candidate toured Yad Vashem's Holocaust memorial, where he donned a skullcap, and he stopped in an Israeli town that has been barraged by Palestinian rocket fire. Obama also visited the Western Wall - Judaism's holiest site - where he touched it and prayed. His one stop in the West Bank was the headquarters of moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

"What if Obama had put a Palestinian headdress on his head, as he put on a Jewish skullcap yesterday? What if he took off his shoes and stepped into the Al-Aqsa mosque, as he did at the Western Wall? That would be balanced behavior," wrote editor Hafeth Barghouti in Thursday's edition of the West Bank newspaper Al-Hayyat al-Jedida.

Still, Obama's stop in the West Bank stood in sharp contrast to a decision by Republican challenger John McCain to visit only Israel and not the Palestinian territories during a trip to the region in March.

Israelis and Palestinians were in rare agreement on one point: Obama told each what they wanted to hear, but his real audience was Jewish voters back home in America.

"He is here in order to impress the voters back home," said Israeli political analyst Yossi Alpher. "Israelis find him interesting, he says the right things carefully, but it's not the kind of visit that one can assess in any substantive or qualitative way."

Obama's candidacy has raised concern among some in Israel and Jewish communities elsewhere because of his declared willingness to speak to Iran. His family's Muslim roots have added to the unease, even though Obama is a Christian.

During his trip, Obama assured Israelis that if elected, he would not pressure them to compromise their security. He also backed Israel's right to defend itself against attacks. The "special relationship" between the U.S. and Israel would be preserved, he said.

He told the Jerusalem Post daily that "I will do everything in my power to stop Iran getting the bomb" - a welcome statement in a country that considers Iran to be its fiercest enemy. Speaking to the mass circulation Yediot Ahronot, he said a military option must be on the table to make sure Iran takes diplomatic efforts to prevent it from building nuclear weapons seriously.

Before dawn Thursday, Obama inserted a small written prayer into a crevice of the Western Wall - a common practice among visitors there - and bowed his head in worship.

Orthodox men at the wall for morning prayers ran down the steps to get a look at the candidate. Many reached out to shake his hand, although one Israeli hard-liner called out in a booming voice, "Obama, Jerusalem is not for sale!"

Hard-liners don't want Israel to cede to the Palestinians any part of east Jerusalem, captured in the 1967 Mideast war. But Palestinians want the eastern sector of the disputed city to serve as capital of a future state.

Obama had caused a flap over the issue days before his visit here when he said Jerusalem should not be divided - a statement that infuriated the Palestinians. Obama later said the city's fate should be negotiated.

Abraham Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League, a U.S.-based Jewish organization, said he met briefly with Obama on Wednesday evening, and the candidate repeated his commitments to Israel. Foxman said he had heard Israelis express concerns earlier.

"To what extent he's laid them to rest, time will tell," he said, adding that Israelis were "impressed with the depth of his knowledge, his understanding and his response."

In his brief visit to the West Bank city of Ramallah, Obama expressed strong support for the creation of an independent Palestinian state, backed negotiations between Israel and moderate Palestinians and rejected talks with the violently anti-Israel Islamic Hamas group that overran Gaza last year.

"It was a campaign visit, but the positive thing for Palestinians was the pledge that Barack Obama will work from the first day in the White House, if he gets elected, to find a solution to the Palestinian issue," said Abbas political adviser Nimr Hamad. "Because it was a campaign visit, it was focused much more on Israel, to attract the Jewish vote."

Mansour Habayed, 28, who works for a Palestinian cell phone company, noted that Obama spent much more time in Israel than in the West Bank. "I am not optimistic that Obama will be a different president of the U.S., in terms of finding a solution to our problem," he said.


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