Sen. Barack Obama’s visit to Israel last week no doubt displeased the outspoken hawkish minority in the American Jewish community who want the Palestinians to be crushed. But it may have helped him with the more moderate majority of that community, where he must pick up support.

There are more than 6 million Jews in the United States — slightly more than 2 percent of the population. But their electoral importance exceeds their numbers, especially for Obama. That’s because such a high percentage of Jews vote and most are Democrats. And there are enough of them clustered in Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania to help determine who will carry those three key states in November.

Obama’s Israel visit, during his Afghanistan-to-London tour, was tremendously important to him in his effort to find his way through the thicket of Jewish politics and policy that largely revolves around attitudes toward the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

A minority of American Jews, the extreme hawks, reject negotiations with the Palestinians or with the neighboring Arab state of Syria. They want a huge increase in Israeli settlements and don’t care what happens to the Palestinians displaced by them. Other American Jews favor a two-state solution, as does Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. And finally, some Jews, a minority, don’t consider the matter especially important.

These points of views are argued with great intensity in the Jewish community. Trying to deal with all of them can drive a candidate, not to mention a journalist, mad.

So far, it’s uphill for Obama. A poll taken recently for the liberal Jewish political organization J Street showed 58 percent of American Jews would vote for him (and 4 per cent were leaning in his direction). That’s about what a Gallup poll showed in April, before Obama clinched the nomination. And it’s considerably less than the 80 percent of the vote given to Al Gore and Bill Clinton and the 71 percent to John Kerry.

Since his campaign began, Obama has been the target of an underground e-mail smear campaign. Generally, the smears seek to link Obama with the anti-Semitic Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan through the senator’s former minister. They also peddle the now familiar lie that the Christian Obama was or still is a Muslim.

The only customers for the smears are die-hards who wouldn’t vote for Obama under any circumstances. Smears aside, his biggest challenge among Jews is the same one he faces elsewhere: He remains an unknown quantity. That’s what he addressed as he traveled from Iraq to London last week, trying to convince the electorate back in the United States that he has the intelligence, maturity and judgment needed for the presidency.

Former Rep. Mel Levine of Los Angeles, an Obama campaigner and Jewish community leader, said he thought Obama’s meetings with Israeli leaders were “a grand slam home run. …He met with a broad cross section and they all commented favorably.”

“People were impressed with his depth of knowledge and grasp of subtlety and nuance,” Levine said.

In general, Obama favors the Israelis and Palestinians working things out themselves.

He had been praised by American Jewish hard-liners when he told the hawkish American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference earlier this year that if he becomes president, “Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided.” But that offended Jews who want Jerusalem to remain Israel’s capital but also favor a capital of a Palestinian state in East Jerusalem.

In an interview during his Israel visit with David Horovitz, editor of the conservative Jerusalem Post, Obama tried to straighten that out. He said, “I believe that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. But I think that how Israel and the Palestinians resolve the issue … needs to be left up to the two parties.”

On the settlements, Obama rejected hawkish demands for a peace agreement that extends Israel’s borders slightly beyond the territory won in the 1967 war — the so-called ’67-plus proposals.

“Look, I think that both sides … are going to have to make some calculations,” he said. “Israel may seek ’67-plus and justify it in terms of the buffer they need for security purposes. They’ve got to consider whether getting that buffer is worth the antagonism of the other party. The Palestinians are going to have to make a calculation: Are we going to fight for every inch of that ’67 border or, given the fact that 40 years have now passed and new realities have taken place on the ground, do we take a deal that may not perfectly align with the ’67 boundaries? My sense is that both sides recognize there’s going to have to be some give. …”

That’s a reasonable and smart approach. It’s the one that will lead to peace in the area, which is essential to peace in the Middle East. Obama’s one-day stop in Israel lays the foundation for him winning the broad Jewish support he needs to win what increasingly looks like a close election.

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