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Our view: Despite America's economic woes, foreign policy issues could preoccupy the next president, but a Mideast peace deal won't be one

November 10, 2008

In Israel, some people want to know if Barack Obama will visit Jerusalem on his way to Tehran. It's shorthand for concerns about the president-elect's interest in engaging Iran rather than continuing to isolate the Islamic Republic. In the Arab world, some might well complain that Mr. Obama doesn't need to stop in Jerusalem; he's been there. That telegraphs a different concern, that as president, Mr. Obama will favor the Jewish state over the Palestinians, as did his predecessors in the White House.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict hasn't gotten much attention of late, and with far more pressing foreign policy decisions facing Mr. Obama, it's unlikely the decades-old dispute over land, sovereignty and security will top his agenda once he takes office. Ending the war in Iraq, policing Iran, containing Russia, securing Afghanistan - these all pose more immediate concerns.

Also, not much can be done in Jerusalem until there is a new Israeli government. Parliamentary elections are expected to be held in February. Their outcome could determine how proactive the new administration will be in negotiating a settlement between the Israelis and Palestinians.

Since Prime Minister Ehud Olmert decided in September to step down because of a corruption scandal, his successor, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, was unable to form a government. A chief reason: She refused to commit to an undivided Jerusalem, which cost her support from a key religious party.

But that was the right response if, as prime minister, she intends to work out a peaceful settlement with the Palestinians. For the past year, the Bush administration made a push to have in place by year's end a framework for such a deal. But it was an unrealistic goal, and in this political climate, unachievable.

If Ms. Livni's rival for prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and his conservative Likud party win in February, it would be a setback for any peace deal with the Palestinians. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas may face his own political problems. Leaders of the militant group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, contend Mr. Abbas' term as president should end in January.

There is no dearth of international concerns that could preoccupy Mr. Obama. Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, U.S. allies in the Arab world, view a resolution of the Palestine issue as key to the region's political ills. But Mr. Obama made a U.S. pullout from Iraq a cornerstone of his campaign, and yet his commitment for a "responsible" withdrawal could keep American soldiers there longer than some expect.

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