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Campaign Rhetoric

For those of us with an abiding concern that a reelected Barack Obama, free of the fear of the dynamics of another political campaign, will revert back to his full-court press against Israel to make a deal with the Palestinians – even at substantial cost to its national and security interests – the president’s widely reported overheard comment the other day to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was anything but reassuring.

At a face to face meeting with the Russian leader, President Obama assured Medvedev that he will have “more flexibility” to deal with contentious issues between the U.S. and Russia – such as missile defense – after the U.S. presidential election in November, and Moscow should therefore give him more “space” until then. The two men were unaware that their words were being picked up by microphones.

While the context for the Obama-Medvedev exchange was the issue of an American missile defense system for Europe that is bitterly dividing the U.S. and Russia, Mr. Obama’s cynical aside is ominous in its own right and obviously has additional applications as well.

We are reminded of a comment, closer to home, made last month by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. During a speech in Tunisia, Ms. Clinton was asked about the pro-Israel stand nearly every U.S. politician takes when running for office. She responded, “You will learn as your democracy develops that a lot of things are said in political campaigns that should not bear a lot of attention. There are comments made that certainly don’t reflect the United States, don’t reflect our foreign policy, don’t reflect who we are as a people.”

In a subsequent interview with CNN she was asked to explain her comments. She said,

I was asked whether the comments in the primary campaign, some of which had been quite inflammatory, represented America. I represent America and I know what happens in campaigns. I’ve been there, done that, and I know that things are said that, you know, I’m not going to be put into practice a policy, but I didn’t think I needed to point that out to the audience.

What is her message?

In the best of worlds, Mr. Obama’s apparent backing off on the issues of Israeli settlement construction and his previous reliance on the pre-1967 lines with “swaps” as presumptive borders in any Middle East peace deal would be the result of an epiphany that reaches beyond the November election. Yet the concern remains that this is all about crude political arithmetic – particularly in light of the president’s lack of support, in contrast to his two immediate predecessors, for Israel’s retention of major Jewish population centers beyond the Green.

Can we afford to ignore or downplay the clear signals, however inadvertent, being sent by Mr. Obama and his secretary of state?

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