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Obama plans hands-on Mideast role-advisers

GREENVILLE, Mississippi (Reuters) - Barack Obama will take a hands-on approach to Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking if elected U.S. president but without pressuring Israel any more than his rivals for the White House, advisers say.

Obama’s advisers assail U.S. President George W. Bush for taking a low-profile approach during the first seven years in office and for not following up more vigorously on the Annapolis peace summit he launched in November.

“What is true is that (Obama) is undeniably and openly committed to putting his own presidential power in the service of trying to help the Israelis achieve a two-state solution with the Palestinians,” said a close Obama adviser who was not authorized by the campaign to speak for attribution.

“That doesn’t equate to pressure. It does equate to a sustained commitment.”

To highlight his engagement on the issue, Obama’s campaign issued a statement on Tuesday summarizing a phone conversation he had earlier with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni in which he reiterated backing of Israel’s right to defend itself as well as support for the peace talks.

But the Democrat, who would be the first black American president if elected in November, has yet to fully outline a detailed approach to Middle East peacemaking. He has vowed not to change the unflinching support of Israel that is a cornerstone of U.S. Middle East policy.

Critics have raised doubts about his commitment to the Jewish state, floating rumors that Obama is a Muslim and linking him to Louis Farrakhan, a U.S. political figure known for his anti-Israel rhetoric.

Obama is a Christian and has denounced Farrakhan. His campaign is upset by what they see as scurrilous attacks by those seeking to erode his support with U.S. Jewish voters.

CRITICISM

Some foreign policy conservatives have openly questioned Obama’s approach on the Middle East, criticizing his call for direct talks with U.S. foes like Iran and suggesting he would be more inclined than other presidential candidates to pressure Israel to make concessions toward the Palestinians.

“There is no evidence to that,” said Daniel Kurtzer, former ambassador to Israel and Egypt, recently recruited to advise Obama on the Middle East and reach out to Jewish voters.

The senior adviser said Obama is highly sensitive to the dilemma many Israelis face, on the one hand wanting peace but worrying about the ability of divided Palestinians to follow through on promises made in talks.

“The Israelis have every reason to be cautious and skeptical as they evaluate whether they have a Palestinian partner that is not only committed to peace but also capable of delivering on that,” the adviser said.

Rep. Robert Wexler, a Florida Democrat who the senator consults on Middle East issues said, “Senator Obama believes that the next president of the United States must be significantly engaged in creating the dynamic to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” But he added that does not entail pressuring the Israelis to make concessions “they would otherwise not consider.”

In the Arab world, where many view U.S. policy as biased toward Israel, there is intense interest in whether Obama’s approach to the Middle East would be different.

Some Muslim commentators closely following the U.S. election find little sign of that in his rhetoric or Senate record, which includes his co-sponsorship of a resolution during the 2006 Lebanon war that strongly backed Israel’s right to defend itself. Hussain Abdul-Hussain, a U.S.-based journalist for the Daily Star of Lebanon wrote: “Even from a Lebanese viewpoint, there is no reason to believe that Obama would be better than Bush on Israel.”

HAMAS

While in sync with Bush’s policy of championing Israel’s right to defend itself, Obama also backs the administration’s policy of shunning the militant group Hamas, which seized control of the Gaza Strip last June, in favor of talks with rival Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Obama is facing greater difficulty in defining for voters his views on the Middle East than is New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, his rival for the Democratic nomination and a former first lady, or Arizona Sen. John McCain, the Republican nominee who has been a prominent voice on foreign policy for years.

On Israel, McCain is likely to be as staunch an ally as fellow Republican Bush. Clinton benefits from the reputation that her husband, Bill Clinton, had of rock-solid support for the Jewish state.

In trying to make his views known, Obama a year ago gave a speech to AIPAC, the Washington-based pro-Israel lobbying group, and recounted a 2006 trip to Israel.

Achieving peace in the Middle East will require the lifting of heavy stones by the United States and Israel, he said.

But Obama added that any effort to reach a two-state solution “begins with a clear and strong commitment to the security of Israel: our strongest ally in the region and its only established democracy. That will always be my starting point.”

Editing by Howard Goller and Jackie Frank

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