All Eyes on Obama as Middle East Crisis Provides Early Test of His Political Skills; When Barack Obama Officially Becomes the Most Powerful Man on Earth This Month He Will Immediately Be Faced with a Major Foreign Policy Problem His Predecessors Failed to Address. David Williamson Assesses How Obama Will React to the Ongoing Israeli-Palestinian Crisis

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Byline: David Williamson

WHEN Barack Obama was on the campaign trail he knew winning the presidency would mean entering the White House at a time of economic crisis.

But Israel's bombardment of Hamas positions in Gaza has ensured he will also inherit an explosive foreign policy in-tray.

Successive US presidents have failed to secure a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.

Yet in the very first days of his presidency Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will confront this deepest of crises.

Professor Jon Roper, an expert in US politics at Swansea University, said: "There were people before Christmas saying he was going to be a domestic president and let Hillary deal with the foreign policy side of things but people are going to look for American leadership in the Middle East.

"That means he is really going to have to engage with the Israel-Palestine issue in a way that George Bush didn't when he first came into office in 2000."

This raises the immediate possibility of a key role for former president Bill Clinton, who persuaded Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israel's Yitzhak Rabin to shake hands in the Rose Garden.

Prof Roper said: "His big regret on leaving office was not being able to broker a Palestinian accord, for which he blamed Arafat, but he has experience in that area and they may want to call on it."

On the campaign stump, Obama's foreign policy priorities were to secure all loose nuclear materials in the world within four years and to use direct diplomacy to persuade Iran to abandon its "nuclear programme" and stop sponsoring terrorism.

Obama also said he would be prepared to strike at terrorist targets inside Pakistan, traditionally one of the US's strongest allies in the region.

Prof Roper said: "The long-term theme was almost to ratchet-up the War on Terror and go after bin Laden, which would put Afghanistan at the top of his agenda but I think the recent events with Israel and Palestine really mean that people will be looking for his reaction to that."

This convergence of crises will test Obama's political skills at home and abroad to the limit during his first months in the Oval Office.

Fury at President Bush's handling of Iraq-awar Obama opposed - helped sweep him to victory. However, left-wing supporters who communicate daily on the internet will be dismayed if his other Middle East policies ape the Bush administration's.

Many Americans who are worried for their jobs and struggling to meet their mortgage payments will be unimpressed if Obama devotes attention to any issue other than the economy.

Prof Roper said: "I think he got a free pass on foreign policy during the campaign, partly because he could always say he was right about Iraq."

Few if any commentators expect a radical change of direction in the US's approach to Israel.

Last July Obama visited the Israeli community of Sderot, a regular target of Palestinian rockets.

In widely reported remarks he said: "If somebody is sending rockets intomyhouse wheremy two daughters sleep at night, I'm going to do everything in my power to stop that - and I'd expect Israelis to do the same thing."

In a speech in April he said: "I will ensure that Israel can defend itself from any threat - from Gaza to Tehran."

His campaign literature stated he and running mate Senator Joe Biden believed "our first and incontrovertible commitment in the Middle East must be to the security of Israel. …