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Do Obama's words reveal his Middle East sympathies?

A close examination of the speech underscores how Obama, four months into his presidency, is still introducing himself -- and what he stands for -- to Americans and the world.

June 05, 2009|Peter Wallsten

WASHINGTON — As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama left some fuzzy edges to his biography. He affirmed strong support for Israel but implied a strong empathy for Palestinians. His personal story played up his introduction to the black church, leaving his father's Islamic roots in the shadows.

It was a narrative designed to ease any voter concern about Obama's background and counter false Internet rumors that he was a Muslim.

But now, with Thursday's speech in Cairo, Obama is laying bare more of his sympathies and inclinations in the volatile area of Middle East politics.

Obama spoke, for example, of Palestinian "resistance" -- a word that can cast Israel as an illegitimate occupier. He drew parallels between Palestinians and the struggles of black Americans in slavery and of black South Africans during apartheid. Both references made some allies of Israel uneasy.

Moreover, in his defense of Israel's legitimacy, Obama cited the Holocaust and centuries of anti-Semitism, but not the belief of some Jews that their claim to the land is rooted in the Bible and reaches back thousands of years.

A close examination of the speech underscored how Obama, four months into his presidency and five years after stepping onto the national stage, is still introducing himself -- and what he stands for -- to Americans and the world.

The country has come to know Obama as someone willing to face a skeptical audience -- a Muslim world wary of U.S. power, abortion rights opponents at the University of Notre Dame and, during the presidential campaign, voters questioning his ties to the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. -- and to ask that audiences move beyond old divisions.

Obama's style has been to cast himself as ready to lead the nation past the entrenched battles of the Clinton and Bush years and to ask Americans to look beyond old fault lines and accept a new politics of pragmatism and compromise.

Now, a key test of Obama's presidency is whether he can actually find new paths across old ideological battlefields.

In some cases, as in his speech last month at Notre Dame, there were few signs that either side in the decades-long fight over abortion rights felt obliged to give ground.

On Thursday, by contrast, the discomfort of some Jewish leaders stood as a sign that Obama may be willing to accept some level of criticism from political forces at home in the course of recasting the contours of an old dispute.

Nathan Diament, public policy director of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America and an advisor to the White House during speech preparations, said he was struck by "some surprising word choices."

In particular, Diament was troubled that Obama shifted from his previous use of the term "Jewish state" and referred instead to a Jewish "homeland." It is a subtle distinction, but Israel advocates worry that it implies a downgrading in status.

Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti- Defamation League and one of America's most ardent Israel supporters, said Obama's remark that Jewish aspirations for a homeland were "rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied" was incorrect and "legitimizes the Arabs who say Israel has no place there."

Foxman said that Obama's views -- among them seeing lessons for Palestinians in the struggles of oppressed blacks and others with a moral high ground -- stem from his biography. "Every individual brings his own baggage," Foxman said. "He's an African American . . . and he has rediscovered his Islamic roots after two years. I don't like it, but I understand it."

Many Jewish leaders reacted with praise for much of Obama's speech, including his assurances that U.S.-Israel ties were "unbreakable" and his call for Muslims to reject violence. But there was also a concern because Obama does not have the long public record on Middle East politics that most other national leaders have developed by the time they run for the White House.

He built his early political career, on Chicago's South Side, by courting leaders from the large African American and Arab American communities. Then, as he sought statewide and national office, he also wooed Jewish leaders.

Supporters of both Israel and the Palestinian cause thought that when it came to the Middle East, Obama was sympathetic to their side -- even though his language always showed a stalwart support for Israel. A majority of American Jews supported Obama in last year's election.

"When he was a candidate he was more careful," said Ori Nir, a spokesman for the left-leaning Americans for Peace Now. In the Cairo speech, Nir said, Obama demonstrated his true feelings, free from the constraints of a campaign.

"Now he is showing great determination and courage, knowing what is needed to lead such a momentous effort," Nir said.

Several Jewish leaders described Obama's stance toward Iran's nuclear ambitions as too soft. Some also complained that he did not label Hamas a terrorist group, as he had in the campaign. Instead, he used more diplomatic terms, saying that to "play a role in fulfilling Palestinian aspirations . . . Hamas must put an end to violence, recognize past agreements, recognize Israel's right to exist."

Others said they were troubled by Obama's apparent desire to be evenhanded in his descriptions of the region's history. They objected to how the president, after invoking the bloody legacy of the Holocaust and criticizing Holocaust deniers, added: "On the other hand, it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people -- Muslims and Christians -- have suffered in pursuit of a homeland."

Said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee: "It's the search for the perfect balance that sometimes concerns me."

--

peter.wallsten@latimes.com

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