Obama Treads Lightly in Israel

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Ronen Zvulun / Reuters

Barack Obama attends a ceremony in the Hall of Remembrance at Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem July 23, 2008.

If Barack Obama's first trip to the Middle East as the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee was a series of tests on how well he knows his way around the most delicate corners of U.S. foreign policy, his last day in the region, shuttling back and forth between the Israelis and the Palestinians, was a fitting final exam.

Obama's words were measured and cautious — and, most important, balanced in their substance and their symbolism. The Illinois Senator, whom some American Jews have accused of not being sufficiently pro-Israel, said over and over again that he would put prime importance on Israel's security needs. And he promised that if he is elected President, he will keep his focus on helping to foster peace between the Israelis and Palestinians.

Obama began the first full day of his second-ever trip to Israel with a pilgrimage to Jerusalem's Yad Vashem Holocaust museum, where he laid a wreath of white flowers on a stone under which ashes of those who died in the camps are buried. And he chose as the site for his only news conference of the day the police station at Sderot, a town near the edge of Gaza that has been the target of Palestinian bombardment for the past seven years. His backdrop was a stack of hundreds and hundreds of shells that have fallen on Sderot. With Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni standing behind him, Obama declared, "I'm here to say as an American and as a friend of Israel that we stand with the people of Sderot and with all the people of Israel."

But while Obama said that a nuclear Iran would be "game-changing," and that he wouldn't take any option off the table to prevent that from happening, he stopped short of saying that he's in favor of the United States using force to stop the Iranians — which is what many Israelis yearn to hear. And the presumptive Democratic nominee also met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah — a trip that Republican nominee-to-be John McCain did not make when he was in Israel a few months ago.

Obama's last stop of the day was at the embattled Prime Minister's residence. "I'm very happy that you found the time to come and visit with us in the tradition of all the great friends of the state of Israel, and I know how friendly you are and how much you care for us," Ehud Olmert told Obama in the courtyard. As they say in diplomacy and politics, everyone was right on message.