Wednesday, November 26th, 2008...4:37 pm

Obama and Israel

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There was much trepidation in certain Jewish quarters pre-Nov. 4, about Sen. Barack Obama and what his presidency would mean for Israel. A steady stream of e-mails directed to the AJW predicted that an Obama presidency would mean the end of the special relationship between the United States and Israel, and that Israel would be pressured to make territorial concessions imperiling its security.

Some groups to their discredit took things further. The Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) — which ran lurid, full-page, four-color ads in every edition of this paper published in September and October — kicked off their anti-Obama advertising campaign with the fear-mongering suggestion that Obama’s alleged naïvete and weakness in the foreign policy area — especially in regard to Israel and Iran — would lead to something akin to a second Holocaust, a “tragic outcome… for the Jewish people” (9-5-08 AJW; this is the RJC ad that unfortunately ran with the disclaimer cropped off).

Obama’s appointment of Rahm Emanuel, the son of an Israeli doctor and someone with close ties to Israel, as White House chief of staff has allayed some of the concerns of Jews and Israelis on the right of the political spectrum. During my recent visit to Israel, this was the rhetorical gambit I heard repeatedly offered up by American Jews, Obama supporters, in response to Israeli expressions of doubt and fear about the president-elect.

On the flip side of the issue, James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute and a Democratic partisan, has noted that the mood of some Arab-American Obama supporters has turned from “euphoria” to “despair.” It did not help when Benjamin Emanuel, Rahm’s father, told an interviewer that his son would stand up for Israeli interests in his new post. The elder Emanuel said that his son would “influence the president to be pro-Israel. Why wouldn’t he? What is he, an Arab? He’s not going to be mopping floors at the White House.”

Rahm Emanuel “quickly apologized to Mary Rose Oakar, a former Democratic House member from Cleveland who heads the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee,” CQ Politics ( reported this week. “She said Emanuel told her it was ‘unacceptable’ for his father to cast aspersions on ‘any ethnic or religious group.’ For his part, Zogby tried to tamp down his community’s concern, arguing that ‘Obama has tapped Emanuel for his proven political skills.’”

Watching Fox News in Israel, I got the impression that the Obama presidency has been pretty much of a failure — so judged two months before the former Illinois senator even takes the oath of office. Not to join with this strain of prejudicial commentary, but a forward look at the Obama administration’s policies regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict leads knowledgeable observers to lower expectations of success in this particularly knotty area.

In short, President Obama will face the reality of divided Israeli and Palestinian polities that will blunt U.S. attempts to mediate the impasse. Aaron David Miller was a Middle East advisor to six secretaries of state in both Democratic and Republican administrations. Writing this week in the Jerusalem Post, Miller argues that “a conflict-ending agreement between Israelis and Palestinians may no longer be possible. I choose my words carefully here. Varying kinds of accommodations, cease-fires, informal cooperation and temporary arrangements may still be possible. But an agreement now or perhaps for the foreseeable future that revolves conclusively on the four core issues (borders, Jerusalem, refugees and security) isn’t.”

During the 2001 federation-sponsored mission to Israel, I recall seeing Miller dashing in and out of the King David Hotel, as part of White House Middle East envoy Tony Zinni’s retinue. That diplomatic effort to patch things up between Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat came to naught, as did a number of similar U.S.-sponsored interventions.

Miller makes the point that “dysfunction and confusion in Palestine make a conflict-ending agreement almost impossible.” Indeed, last year Hamas, the Islamist militant faction, took over the Gaza Strip in a bloody coup d’etat, ousting their rivals in Fatah, which is led by Palestinian Authority (P.A.) President Mahmoud Abbas. Reporting from the West Bank in the most recent edition of the Jerusalem Report, Joshua Mitnick notes that Fatah is deploying squads of special police to Hamas strongholds like Hebron to forestall further conquests by the Islamist faction. Israel, which still operates at will throughout the West Bank, is letting the Fatah forces take the fight to Hamas. The two-state solution sanctified on the White House lawn in 1993, with the handshake between Arafat and Rabin, has taken a different path: there are now two warring Palestinian mini-states, which complicates Israel’s efforts to reach a peace accord.

On the Israeli side, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has resigned amid a number of fraud and corruption investigations. He is presiding over a caretaker government until Israelis elect new leadership on Feb. 10. In a recent unscientific poll of Israelis (mainly store clerks and taxi drivers), I found that there was not a great deal of enthusiasm for the leading political contenders. The Labor Party, headed by former prime minister and current defense minister Ehud Barak, is plummeting in popularity. Kadima, the new party formed by then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who lingers in a coma, is led by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who enjoys a reputation for being “clean,” untainted by the corruption scandals endemic to Israeli politics. Former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, leader of the Likud Party, is ahead in mainstream public opinion surveys; the race seems to be boiling down to a Livni-Netanyahu contest.

“In Israeli politics, differently than in the U.S. election, energy politics are taken to a higher plane by recycling politicians,” Alon Pinkas, president of the U.S.-Israel Institute at the Yitzhak Rabin Center in Tel Aviv, recently told the Israel Policy Forum. “We don’t do garbage, we don’t do plastic, we don’t do automobile tires; we do politicians.”

Given the critical issues facing Israel (Iran’s drive for nuclear weapons, continual rocket attacks by Hamas terrorists in the Gaza Strip, and the threat from a rearmed Hezbollah militia on Israel’s northern border), many Israelis are disheartened that more formidable political leaders have not emerged.

Aaron David Miller says that he’s no longer in the business of advising Israelis and Palestinians. He does, however, advise President-elect Obama to “recognize there’s no deal in this [Israeli-Palestinian] negotiation now. Manage it as best you can: help support an Israeli-Hamas ceasefire, train P.A. security forces, pour economic aid into the West Bank and Gaza, even nurture Israeli-Palestinian negotiations on the big issues, but don’t think you can solve it; you can’t.”

Americans, an optimistic lot, like to think that they can impose their solutions on problems around the world. The incoming Obama administration will have its hands full with the mounting economic turmoil triggered by reckless financial speculation by big players on Wall Street. Then Obama and company will have to devise strategies for the intractable wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — and confront Iran over its nuclear weapons program. Somewhere down on their list of priorities, the new Obama team will consider how U.S. agency can ratchet down tensions in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and, perhaps, against the considered views of knowledgeable observers, find some unexplored avenue leading to peace in a long-suffering land.

— Mordecai Specktor

(Published in the American Jewish World, Nov. 28, 2008.)

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