Thursday, July 31, 2008

Conference Call on Obama's Middle East Trip

Instead of having lunch today I sat in on conference call for the Jewish Community Leadership Committee. I had some trepidation in doing so for two reasons. First, if I were any WASP-ier I would have wings and fly. Second, there is only so much room in the old memory banks and when I started paying a lot more attention to the state house something had to go and the Middle East shifted over to Mr. J's side of the "things to keep track of" list. So this is a topic I am not well versed on at all.

Thus these notes are extremely rough. There were a few minute or two stretches that I missed entirely. Those interested should seek out more detailed analysis elsewhere. My apologies in advance for any errors or misconceptions.

Dennis Ross and Dan Shapiro accompanied Sen. Obama on his trip to the Middle East.

Ambassador Dennis Ross (DR), former U.S. Special Middle East Coordinator & Senior Middle East Policy Advisor to Senator Barack Obama

Dan Shapiro (DS), who worked at the United States National Security Council during the Clinton administration and is a Middle East specialist, was also on the trip and also spoke on the call.

Eric L (host, not sure of his last name)

DS: Briefly recount highlights of Obama’s visit in Israel. This was part of an 8 country trip, the first three as part of senatorial duties. It then switched to campaign mode and was funded by the campaign. He had several purposes in mind as he set out to do this. The first is to allow him to continue to build personal relationships or begin to build personal relationships with key leaders. Second he was very much in a listening mode, about the challenges we face and share together. Especially in Israel the security issues. He made it clear he did not come to negotiate or make policy. He was not seeking to usurp the role of the president.
He shared sense of urgency at the thought of a nuclear Iran. Very much a commonality of view on the gravity of that. There was a discussion of his potential tactics on that. Strong view of his interest as a potential president of seeing Palestinians and Israelis meet mutual goals in Middle East. Talk about how that process can be preserved.

He packed a lot into one day, meetings with many leaders and government officials. Iran was topic A in most of those meetings. Meetings warm and friendly. Went to Sderot, an area that has seen rocket attacks, to demonstrate solidarity. Israel’s right to defend itself. Went to Hall of Remembrance and Western Wall. Went to Ramallah. Give Palestinians a stronger hand against Hamas and extremists. Reached out to 3 families sitting shiva after bodies returned home from Lebanon.

DR: Dan has provided a really excellent overview of the trip. I’d like to give you a little bit more flavor of what went on. What was striking in these meetings with a very clear presumption that you only have one administration at a time and he wasn’t there to make policy. While many leaders, govt and opposition groups, might be expected to have differing views, there was agreement on Iran. Uniform message that Sen. Obama heard. Value of trying to win Syria away from Iran. Israelis needed to hear from him how important the Iran issue was to him. Not only to Israel but to international community. Obama expressed this. Explained his approach, the more your own intentions are clear the easier it is to engage. Purpose he had in mind for engagement was not to let Iran play for time or allow them leverage. Shouldn’t have an all or nothing approach, trying to make progress where one can, build on progress already underway. People struck by Obama’s grasp of the issues, not only the specifics but a clear strategic concept.

43% of Iranian gas comes from outside because they don’t have the refinery capacity. There are literally 5 companies that provide insurance to Iranian companies that work on the outside. Talked with European leaders about how to persuade or leverage Iranians. Calling on Europeans to assume responsibility in rebuilding Iraq, working with Afghanistan and also working with Iran. Created a space for Europeans to take steps on this.

Q: [could not catch]

DR: Learned one thing in particular on the Palestinian side, no willingness on their part to give in to Hamas. Problem is publics on each side are unbelieving. Fair amount of discussion about what needs to be done on the ground. You cannot peace when peace is only an abstraction. Must create a change in realities on the ground. Work on economic, security and political fronts.

Q: Does the Islamic Republic of Iran really mean to destroy Israel or it is just a proxy?

DR: Across the Iranian leadership the hostility against Israel is unrelenting. Fundamental rejection of Israel’s legitimacy. There is a segment of the Iranian regime to daily carry out terror. They want some recognition that they play a part in the region. You don’t get to have a position of respect in the region if you try to subvert your neighbors. It is possible that there are ways to change Iranian behaviors. We need a much stronger carrot and a much stronger stick.

Q: Many are concerned about Obama’s position on Jerusalem.

DR: If you follow what he said on Jerusalem there has been a continuity of fact. Jerusalem is the capitol of Israel. Cities should never be divided again. Final status of Jerusalem needs to be resolved through negotiation. Those three elements make up his position.

DS: This position was not raised by any of the Israeli leaders.

Q: For a growing number of American Jews there is a perception that the GOP is the true friend of Israel.

DR: Israel is always better off when America has great standing in the world. If you look around now there are all sorts of things happening in the region with the US as a bystander. The best friend of Israel is not only their friend but someone who makes the US credible in the region and when the US has a higher standing in the world.

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