Insights from the UK and beyond
Brown outdone by Obama effect
On a trip to Iraq and Israel this weekend, he had the misfortune to have U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama following hard on his heels — and grabbing the lion’s
share of media attention.
Obama, who has pledged to withdraw U.S. combat troops from Iraq within 16 months if he wins the November election, arrived on Iraq on Monday, just two days after Brown’s whirlwind tour of Baghdad and Basra. He is due to arrive in Israel just hours after Brown’s plane took off on Monday to return to London.
Brown, known for his dour personality, could not compete in the charisma stakes with the senator from Illinois, the focus of intense interest as he makes his debut on the world stage with a tour of Europe, the Middle East and Afghanistan.
Left-leaning Israeli newspaper Haaretz, noting the lack of impact Brown’s visit had made in Israel, sympathised with the British leader. “Visiting Israel in the same week that Obama is expected to arrive is like being the opening act for The Beatles,” it said.
Obama fever has swept some of the countries he is due to visit as people there get a first close look at the politician who takes on Republican Senator John McCain in the race to succeed U.S. President George W. Bush in the White House.
Brown, on the other hand, has little novelty value because, while he is a relatively new prime minister, he spent a decade before that as finance minister and so is well known to many of the leaders and ministers he held talks with.
On the streets, though, Brown is not as well known as Blair, now an international Middle East envoy. “I knew Mr. Tony Blair before, but Brown — I don’t know what he’s like,” said Palestinian taxi driver Saddam Musa, 55.
The newspaper said there were other reasons for the little coverage given to Brown’s visit, saying he lacked the political clout of former British leaders such as Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair.
Brown, making his first visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories as prime minister, was granted the honour on Monday of addressing the Israeli parliament, or Knesset, the first British leader to do so. He recalled how, as a child, he had watched film of Israel,
shot by his father, a Church of Scotland minister who learned Hebrew and regularly visited Israel.
Brown promised $60 million in new aid for the Palestinians and d said a Middle East peace deal was within reach, but his call on Israel to freeze Jewish settlement expansion was rebuffed by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Brown’s message drew criticism from Israeli commentators.
“Unfortunately, he parroted conventional European Union wisdom, which assumes that the road to progress is paved only with further Israeli concessions and requires condemnation of the life-saving security barrier,” The Jerusalem Post said on its website. “Nothing could be more counterproductive.” The right-leaning newspaper was referring to the fence Israel has built on occupied Palestinian land which it says keeps suicide bombers out of its cities.
Haaretz said visiting leaders had developed a habit of comforting the Palestinians with financial aid while compensating the Israelis by recognising their right to live in
security and comfort. “Yesterday, it was the turn of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown to contribute to this depressing ritual.”
It said there was not much value in Brown’s plan for an “economic road map” to boost the region’s development as long as the West Bank was dissected by innumerable roadblocks.
Back in London, Brown will brief parliament on Tuesday on Britain’s future role in Iraq and brace for Thursday’s crucial parliamentary election in Glasgow East. Defeat in the Labour stronghold, seen as unlikely, could lead to Brown being forced to step down.
After that, he will barely have time to draw breath before Obama finally catches up with him. They are due to hold talks in London on Saturday.