Obama to visit Israel before convention
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Barack Obama is a "very welcome visitor," and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert "is looking forward to meeting the senator," Olmert's spokesman Mark Regev said Saturday night amid reports that Obama is planning a trip to the Middle East and Europe this summer.
Neither Regev nor a Foreign Ministry spokesman said they had been contacted by Obama's campaign regarding the date of the visit, but it is expected to take place before late-August's Democratic Party convention in Denver.
Olmert spoke by telephone with Obama when he was in the US earlier this month. The presumptive Democratic presidential candidate visited Israel for the first time in 2006.
The Obama campaign issued a statement Saturday saying the candidate "will be traveling overseas to assess the situation in countries that are critical to American national security, and to consult with close friends and allies. Senator Obama will visit France, Germany, Israel, Jordan and the United Kingdom where he will consult with the leaders of those nations about common challenges like terrorism, nuclear proliferation and climate change."
The overseas trip, rare in the heat of a close presidential race, is widely seen as a way for Obama to boost his foreign policy credentials, and his visit to Israel is seen as an attempt to boost his standing among Jewish voters.
Some Jews are concerned about Obama's stand on the Middle East and his expressed willingness to speak with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, while others are concerned about his long-time relationship, since severed, with Rev. Jeremiah Wright of Chicago's Trinity United Church.
"Israel is a strong and close friend of the United States, and is confronting grave threats from Gaza to Teheran," Obama said in the statement announcing his visit. "Jordan has been a close partner in the peace process and a host of other issues of common concern. France, Germany and the United Kingdom are key anchors of the trans-Atlantic alliance and have contributed to the mission in Afghanistan, and I look forward to discussing how we can strengthen our partnership in the years to come."
The presumptive Republican nominee, John McCain, made a similar trip, one that included Israel as well, in March.
The Obama campaign would not disclose the dates of any of the plans in an attempt to protect Obama's security. Obama's campaign manager said this past week that Iraq and Afghanistan would be part of an official congressional trip. The other stops are part of a campaign-funded visit.
Obama had considered such a trip last year, but the competitive primary with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton made it too risky to spend time away from early primary states.
Obama's foreign policy adviser, Denis McDonough, said the senator wants to consult with leaders of some important US allies about common challenges, including terrorism, nuclear proliferation, climate change, Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran.
"He obviously wants to consult with the leaders of those countries but also find an opportunity to speak to the people of those countries about our shared values and goals," McDonough said.
The trip also will help address McCain's criticism that the first-term Illinois senator lacks the international experience to be commander in chief. In particular, McCain and the Republican Party have sought to make the case that Obama has not observed conditions in Iraq closely enough to determine whether his plan to remove all combat troops within 16 months is the right course of action.
Obama made his only trip to Iraq in January 2006 as part of a congressional delegation. McCain, a senator from Arizona and a Vietnam War veteran, has been to Iraq eight times, most recently in March.
An Associated Press-Yahoo! News poll taken this month found that 61 percent of those surveyed see McCain as a good military leader, compared with 27% for Obama. But 43% see Obama as more likely to improve America's standing in the world, as compared to 33% who said the same about McCain.
A Mutagim poll commissioned by the Makor Rishon newspaper and published on Friday showed that some 36% of Israelis would prefer to see McCain as president, while 27% favored Obama. Another 37% either had no opinion or no preference.