PARIS — Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama will visit the West Bank next week as part of a swing through the Middle East, a Palestinian official said Monday, giving an important diplomatic boost to the Palestinians at a sensitive time in peace talks.
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The Palestinians expressed satisfaction over the planned meeting with the presumed Democratic nominee, which comes months after Obama's likely Republican opponent, John McCain, passed on meeting with the Palestinians during a brief visit to Israel.
Obama is scheduled to meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during his July 23 stop in Ramallah, said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, who was in Paris for a Mediterranean summit.
"We welcome this meeting," Erekat said. If Obama is elected, he added, "we hope he will stay the course between Israel and the Palestinians in reaching peace and a two-state solution."
During the same visit, Obama is expected to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and other Israeli officials. The Obama campaign declined to comment.
The visit will be closely watched. The U.S. is the key broker in Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, and officials on both sides are trying to get a feel on whether Obama will change U.S. policy in the region.
President Bush is trying to broker a peace agreement before he leaves office.
In Paris on Sunday, Olmert said the sides are closer than ever to achieving peace, but it is uncertain whether they can meet Bush's target date for at least the outline of a final deal. Israel and the Palestinians remain at odds over key issues, such as the fate of Jerusalem, and a burgeoning corruption scandal has threatened to drive Olmert from office.
Video: Political satire or tasteless cartoon? Palestinians have privately complained that they suspect Bush is biased toward Israel, and expressed hope the next U.S. leader will be more sympathetic to their cause. While they have been careful not to take sides, officials were disappointed when McCain did not meet with them during his trip to Israel last March.
McCain has long been a strong supporter of Israel in the Senate, and it appears unlikely he will radically change Bush's policies. During his visit, McCain said he would "personally be engaged" in peace talks if he's elected and make the matter his "highest priority."
Obama's positions are far less clear.
In a recent speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, he offered such ardent support for Israel that he had to backtrack just a few days later. Obama, working to woo Jewish voters, told the lobbying group that he supported Israel retaining control of an "undivided" Jerusalem. The comment so infuriated many Arab leaders that he was forced to issue a clarification that he didn't oppose Israeli-Palestinian negotiations over the future of the city.
Obama also has raised concerns among Israel's supporters because of his willingness to speak to Iran, while some have expressed concern about his Muslim roots. Obama's father and stepfather were Muslim and he spent part of his childhood in Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim country. But he is a Christian.
Few details of Obama's overseas travel schedule have been released. Obama's campaign has said he will travel to Iraq, Afghanistan, Jordan, Israel, Germany, France and Britain.
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