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Obama and Israel: Missing The Point

The debate around the Barack Obama candidacy has not surprisingly heated up of late in the Jewish and pro-Israel communities.  Most of the arguments are well rehearsed and predictable, (some are spurious and deplorable) but they often miss the point and fail to connect between the broader Obama appeal and its relevance to the US-Israel equation.  That connection is as follows: the Israel-America relationship is best served by a president who can bring external strength to the US through greater internal unity, can restore America’s standing and credibility in the Middle East, be an effective global coalition-builder and deal-broker and end, how can I put it, fairy-tale based foreign policy.  And Barack Obama looks like the person to do those things.  

Of course, the Jewish community is not immune to the kind of smear campaigns, innuendos and direct appeals to racism and Islamophobia that have been a feature of the more general anti-Obama sewer politics. In response, the alpha list of Jewish leadership, Orthodox, Reform, ADL, AJC and more, did the right thing and published this open letter speaking out against the “hateful emails,” and “abhorrent rhetoric,” that “mischaracterized Senator Barack Obama’s religious beliefs and who he is as a person.”   
 
Unfortunately, there are attempts to kosher those kinds of smear campaigns for the specific consumption of American Jews—by making it about Israel.  Look at his color, did you hear about his religion? He must be anti-Israel.  When I was back home in Israel recently I was shocked to discover that an ugly hate campaign being distributed virally by email in the US has made its way into Hebrew and is doing the rounds in Israel.  The Obama campaign has done an impressive job at pushing back in clarifying the senator’s record and positions in the Jewish-American and Israeli press.  I know this election campaign is all about change but the pro-Israel community is often more interested in continuity and, in terms of the historic relationship between America and Israel, Obama offers that.  Dare I say it, Obama seems more in step with Bill Clinton’s Israel policy as president than Hillary does (her policy, for instance, contradicts her husband’s peace plan of December 2000).  Obama represents the classic appeal to a relationship based on security for Israel, stability in the region, active American diplomatic engagement and pursuit of peace - talk to the bad guys if that is what can deliver results and certainly don’t prevent Israel from talking to it’s neighbors (the Bush administration has, for instance, discouraged Israel’s leaders from resuming negotiations with Syria).  
 
It is actually the Republican neocons under Bush 43 who have been the transformational policy change and new idea people when it comes to the Middle East. And to paraphrase Obama himself from a different conversation, to recognize that they had transformational ideas is not to support those ideas, agree with them, or think they were good ideas.  Bush’s policies in the region have not been good for America or Israel.  The Middle East is more radically and dangerously destabilized and Israel faces a more uncertain security environment.   
 
So what is the point on Obama that gives him the edge on Israel? It sounds a little unusual, but a strong case can be made that the most important issue for an American politician to have gotten right in the last years from a pro-Israel perspective was the Iraq war.  And I mean opposition to that war. And Obama got it right.  His instincts and judgment trumped the supposed ‘experience’ of others. I know it’s fashionable in some quarters to view the Iraq war as carrying a Made in Israel label, but at the highest levels of the political and military leadership (and according to reports this includes then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon) the Israelis were skeptics, understanding the possible implications for regional equilibrium, the spread of al-Qaeda, and the oxygen this would suck up from attention to other issues.  
 
Not all of the consequences of that war were so unpredictable.  With the removal of its major regional competitor, Iran now has more influence and is emboldened.  Al-Qaeda was able to establish a new base of operations in Iraq to which it has recruited fighters from across the Arab world and from which it has been able to spread out and conduct attacks in Jordan, in the Egyptian Sinai, in Lebanese refugee camps, and there are reports of al-Qaeda copycat cells in Palestinian areas.  That is getting very close to home for Israelis and it is a dramatically unwelcome development.  America is overstretched and bogged down militarily and its reputation is battered on so many levels.  None of this of course is good for America but it is also very bad news indeed for Israel.  So, the Iraq decision matters.  And after the CNN debate there is no need for a refresher course on which candidate was ready, on day one, to oppose the war.   
 
The combination of an American president deeply committed to Israel but vilified internationally and regionally, who pursues dangerously misguided Middle East policies and does so with woeful incompetence to boot, turns out not to be so ideal.  A far greater asset to the pro-Israel community would be an American president equally committed to Israel and her security, and who is also able to build regional and global alliances, is capable of restoring America’s image, of deploying concerted, effective, and when necessary, tough diplomacy, and who, by uniting America from within, can strengthen the America that is then projected outwards.  Barack Obama seems to have best positioned himself to be that president.  As Senator Kennedy noted in endorsing Obama, “when he raises his hand on Inauguration Day, at that very moment, we will lift the spirits of our nation and begin to restore America's standing in the world.”  
 
Here’s what Barack Obama had to say in the most recent CNN presidential debate when discussing Iraq: “I don't want to just end the war, but I want to end the mindset that got us into war in the first place.”  Changing that mindset is very much a shared American and Israeli interest.  Israel remains strong, but the hawkish Bush years have not been good for stability in Israel’s neighborhood, for Israeli security or for Israel’s long-term interests.  Obama’s possibly unique ability to reverse America’s decline, to overcome the politics of fear and demonstrate a leadership that is compelling also outside of America matters to a certain country that is strategically aligned with and even reliant on the US, namely Israel.  This point has been missed amidst all the mudslinging. It should matter deeply across the spectrum of the pro-Israel community in America.  
 
Look, I’m an Israeli and this is probably none of my business. But having been a negotiator for the Israeli government and seen first hand the vital role that America can play, it matters to me.  To be frank my personal belief is that it is in Israel’s interest for there to be a more robust, assertive and tireless American effort to help secure peace between Israel and her neighbors, that American leadership is perhaps a prerequisite in achieving this, and that American should pursue such an outcome as part of its own national security priorities.  The Winograd report just published in Jerusalem that investigates the Lebanon war of summer 2006 is not particularly subtle in pointing out that Israel ’s military capabilities were seriously undermined by a lack of investment in training over the last years.  That is a consequence of the Israeli Defense Forces being saddled with what are basically policing duties at checkpoints and in deployments throughout the West Bank. Israel needs to put the occupation behind it.  As prime minister Olmert has pointed out, a two state peace deal is an urgent priority for Israel.  
 
But I digress, that’s not what this is about.  This is about what might unite most of the pro-Israel community and that centers around strengthening the America-Israel relationship in ways that are mutually beneficial, that bring out the best in both countries, and that can deliver a more stable, secure and peaceful Middle East.  Israel’s supporters in America should not feel excluded or alienated from the excitement that surrounds the hope that is Obama, they have every reason, in fact, to embrace and be a part of it. 

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Comments (6)

joe:

Unfortunately, Israel endured several years of the worst terrorist attacks in its history following the Clinton Oslo accords. These attacks lasted several years, until Israel managed to restore some sort of peace to its borders. You create this imaginary scene of a blissful and peaceful Israel under Bill Clinton's Presidency, but the reality of the matter is, just the opposite is true. It took several years till Israel straigtened out the security mess it got itself into as a result of Clinton's Oslo accords. The same thing will happen under Obama - as history always repeats itself. Please, do not delude yourself and do not deceive your readers. You're twisting the historical facts.

As far as Obama is concerned, I need not look any further than his mentor, Rev Jeremiah Wright, who called the 9/11 attacks a wake up call to White America for discriminating against people of color and who has said a myriad of other radical statements. Please explain to me why I should believe that Obama, who has admitted to being greatly inspired by Rev Wright, will be a good President.

And please, I would appreciate it if you'd explain to me why I should believe that all those buses that were bombed in Israel as a result of Clinton's Middle East policies were actually a blessing in disguise. Why are you distorting the historical facts in the name of some specious Liberal ideology. Think deep within yourself, is your desire to make yourself feel like a fair and magnanimous individual causing you to distort the facts?

Renfro:

Michael Patlan

I am disappointed in your standard boilerplate defense of your Israeli position.

All I can do is make real simple for you. As an American I do not want Jews, Israelis, christian evangelicals,malcontent exiles or any other cult like groups unduely influencing my country's foreign policy against it's own best interest. Israel is not a democracy by US standards and there is no action ever taken by Israel you can point to that shows Israel has ever been of benefit to the US...quite the opposite.

This...." Israelis are known for not needing anyone's favor and frankly, throughout their economical culture, Americans are quite as famous for not giving too much away for free"...frankly betrays your self delusion and mythical thinking.

The fact is that without the US Israel would not exist today. There is no country in the world more dependent on the US than Israel.

I would appreciate if you would call congress and put your money where your mouth is and object to that 30 billion in US taxpayer aid to Israel over the next 10 years.

If Israel is a success and capable of taking care of itself...why pray tell don't they?...and take their hands out of the US pocket...and out government.

At least we do agree that is what they should do.

anon:

nabil fahmy today on c-span2 has a very good commentary on israel/palestinian peace. i couldn't find the url for the show. actually i'm writing this as i watch it.

Michael Patlan:

Dear Renfro,
You seem to neglect the fact that any foreign aid or political intervention that the United States government extends towards Israel (or any other country) is nothing but a well thought of investment aimed at boosting America's own geopolitical gain in the long run. If you, as a patriotic American, feel "used" by anyone, then you can rest assured - there is nothing altruistic in the motives of your country. After all, you don't see many Burmese refugee communities successfully using your country to promote freedom in Manyamar, or Sudanese using it to liberate Darfur, or the very same Cubans you have mentioned. And you can bet it's not because they're less motivated than the pro-Israeli community to recruit the US to their cause.

You said that Israel and pro-Israeli community seek to take advantage of the USA to promote their own goals. I couldn't agree more. Only the same could be said about the United States as well. It allows itself to be "used" by Israel and its supporters in return for all the benefits in a firm alliance with the only democratic nation in the strategically paramount Middle Eastern region. That's just the way the world works - everybody is using everybody.

Will it be more beneficial for the USA to let go of its partnership with Israel and end its often challengeable pro-Israeli policies? Perhaps. Honestly, I feel it will benefit Israel much more than the States. Finally the Israeli Avionic Industries will be able to enhance Chinese aircraft with high end technology without being subject to foreign pressure. Maybe Israel will even begin exporting high technology products rather than mostly knowledge and young gifted brains (with the United States being the primary importer).

Perhaps a day will come when a wise leader from either side will decide that this long-term romance should end and each country should begin a road of its own. As you wisely mentioned, it does take two for the tango.
I can't say if this turns good or bad for Israel in the long run. I think Israel can manage on its own and being financially independent has never hurt any country before. However, a lot can be gained from a mutually beneficient alliance with a powerful and dominant nation.

While the tango still lasts, however, I'd appreciate it much if righteous Americans didn't point an accusative finger at Israel, blaming it for taking advantage. Israelis are known for not needing anyone's favor and frankly, throughout their economical culture, Americans are quite as famous for not giving too much away for free.

Unfortunately, Daniel, I believe that your message isn't being heard or isn't understood.

It's one thing to oppose hate messages, but I wonder how many in AJC (be it Congress or Committee), ADL, even Jewish Tikkun readers support Obama? It appears as though there's a knee-jerk reaction to automatically support HRC, similar to the reaction taken by many Catholics, be they of the National Catholic Register (conservative) or National Catholic Reporter (liberal) camp.

Your points on what is best for America is also what is best for Israel -- and the world at large -- should be taken to heart by all.

Renfro:

Yes, you are an Israeli and therefore your concern is for Israel and how the pro Israel jewish community living in America can best use America and our government to help Israel.

That's natural, I suppose. If America were the client state of France, as an American I would probably be lobbying Fench politicans to help America. And although I agree with your general positions on how Israel could be helped to peace, I am an American who resents the community(ies) living in my country that feel they have a right to use my country for the benefit of their foreign homeland and to tie our interest together for their own purpose. Whether it is Jews or exiled Cubans or Iraqis or Iranians who want to set US foreign policy and influence elections for their own foreign interest purpose, it is wrong for America.

It is sad what this has done to my country and even sadder that despite the good intentions of those like yourself you can't admit, because of your loyalty to your country, Israel, that the only thing that would make America respected and strong again in the world community is to be that morally evenhanded and impartial America again. Not a twisted hybrid of special interest and favortism toward Israel or any other country expressed in our foreign policy and relations with the rest of the world.

I don't see a restoration of respect for America, in large part because of Israel and the ME, ever coming about unless the pro Israel Jews living in the US and the US stop supporting Israel and Israel has to assume their responsibilites all on their own and answer for their actions on their own.

The pro Israel community is not responsible for all bad policy the US has produced in the ME, because it does take two to tango, and our own non Israeli leaders are just as guilty in this corruption of American interest and policy.

I wish I thought there would be some awakening to
this special interest Achilles Heel in America.
But in reality I think it will continue until America is so damaged and diminished that US support for Israel won't even be on the table anymore due to our own changed circumstances.

I hope to be wrong and maybe someone will come along and change this...maybe someone will out this special interest foreign policy and make it an issue. If someone did I expect a knock down drag out fight with all the usual hurls of anti-semite in the case of Jews and Israel, or bigot or communist lovers in the case of Cubans and Cuba policy and so forth.

But speaking for Americans, better that we fight about all this now than waiting till there is nothing left to fight over. I had hoped it would happen in this election season but alas it has not.

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