Israeli elites “edgy about Obama”

We aren’t sure that the optimism in his closing assessment of Obama’s AIPAC speech is warranted. But this June 13 piece by Bernard Avishai in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz says much about the dilemmas the candidate faces. The piece is ostensibly about how Obama is perceived by the ruling elites within Israel, but much of it also applies to “the Lobby,” the “neocons,” and Israel’s stateside amen chorus generally:

Edgy about Obama
In the early 1980s, as a young community organizer in Chicago’s projects, Barack Obama had had enough of Louis Farrakhan’s acolytes, black separatists who were increasingly anti-Semitic. “Notions of purity of race or of culture,” Obama wrote in his 1995 memoir, “could not bring self-esteem” to typical blacks any more than they could to him, the son of a white mother, and longed-for African father. “Our sense of wholeness would have to arise from something more fine than the bloodlines we’d inherited.”

You might think that Obama – natural cosmopolitan, editor of the Harvard Law Review, reader of Philip Roth – would be the kind of leader American Jews would flock to. Who if not Jews have benefited from the ideal of “integration” that made Obama’s candidacy possible? And, indeed, at least 60 percent of American Jews (and a much higher proportion of young Jews) already say they’ll be voting for him.

But Israeli elites have remained resistant, even condescending, and these attitudes have reinforced those of older American Jews, especially in Florida, which Obama needs to carry. Blogs circulated by Israeli rightists claim that he has had a “disturbing pattern of associations” – for example, with Columbia University’s Rashid Khalidi, whose big sin, apparently, is his own pattern of association with the very Palestinian Authority leadership Israel’s centrist government considers a negotiating partner.

Yet even my centrist friends in Israel, young and old, smart and smarter, seem edgy about Obama. (“America is not ready,” they say.) Veteran columnists charge Obama with both naivete and – without seeing the contradiction – Machiavellianism. One of Channel One’s new TV news anchors, whose Tel Aviv pals probably think Jim Crow is the name of a bourbon, pounced on him for misremembering which concentration camp his uncle helped liberate. As if the deep impression made on a sensitive youth by his uncle’s postwar shock is not the point.

What’s the problem? Perhaps there is something about Obama’s hybridized identity that does not quite fit the social logic Israelis think vaguely consistent with Zionism. Who, if not we Israelis, are still anxious about whether our nationalism entails “purity of culture” or “bloodlines”? If democratic standards can make a black man a mainstream American, can it not also make an Arab a mainstream Israeli? To what “demographic” does Obama belong?

Israelis instinctively fear charismatic leaders who can whip up huge audiences, especially leaders who seem sincere about Christian grace, without being pro-settler evangelicals. Will Obama, so the argument goes, be another Jimmy Carter – you know, another peacemaker out of his depth? The fact that Carter actually achieved a peace treaty, indeed, risked his presidency to force Anwar Sadat to agree to the deal without a settlement freeze by Israel, is beside the point. Israelis are allowed to condemn settlements. An American who does is not “a friend.”


The most obvious problem with Obama, however, is more immediate. He has had the brass to insist on persistent diplomacy, not military action, against Iran. He would not utterly renounce the use of force, he told AIPAC in measured, unapologetic language last week, but he would first rebuild America’s alliances and meet with Iranian officials. He would offer to ease sanctions and work to end Iran’s comparative commercial isolation – if in return Iran ended its nuclear program.

My friends in the center are not persuaded. Many, it seems, would like to see a strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities before President George W. Bush leaves office – or they think they might – or want a new president who at least entertains the idea. They think (rashly, I believe) that a strike can be something relatively clean and decisive, like the one against Iraq in 1981 or Syria last year. They’ve applauded Bush for invoking the lessons of Munich, even if he has learned his history from PowerPoint. Anyway, if there are greater complexities in the region…Israeli elites want to be the ones to tell Washington what to think about them. They don’t want to be told.

Obama, in other words, represents a change Israelis are not sure we know how to live with after 40 years of talk about our strategic military alliance. He symbolizes America’s great power to attract, as opposed to its degraded power to deter. Indeed, he wants to be the face of global integration, from Rio to Jakarta – ironically, the very integration Israeli entrepreneurs excel at. John McCain says he will be the jihadists’ worst nightmare. Obama reminds us that the war McCain helped launch has been their dream come true.

Obama’s AIPAC speech was, in this sense, a masterful gesture toward the future, and he richly deserved his standing ovation. He reassured his audience about Israel’s security, but emphasized collective security. He promised Israel support for its capital in an “undivided” Jerusalem, without barbed wire and walls, but did not promise the Likud a “united” Jerusalem. Most important, he promised not to neglect the peace process until his last year in office.

For Israelis, this last promise may well provoke the saddest fear of all. It is the fear of hoping again.

We can only hope that 1.) Avishai’s distinction between “undivided” and “united” is more meaningful than it appears; 2.) Obama is playing the power game to get elected, and once in the Oval Office will steer a more independent course; and most of all, 3.) that the AIPAC crowd isn’t as powerful as everyone says—at least not powerful enough to keep Obama out of the White House. However, on point 1, Israeli left-wing dissident Uri Avnery draws exactly the opposite conclusion. From Gush Shalom, June 7:

The transparent fawning of Obama on the Israel lobby stands out more than similar efforts by the other candidates.

Why? Because his dizzying success in the primaries was entirely due to his promise to bring about a change, to put an end to the rotten practices of Washington and to replace the old cynics with a young, brave person who does not compromise his principles.

And lo and behold, the very first thing he does after securing the nomination of his party is to compromise his principles. And how!

The outstanding thing that distinguishes him from both Hillary Clinton and John McCain is his uncompromising opposition to the war in Iraq from the very first moment. That was courageous. That was unpopular. That was totally opposed to the Israel lobby, all of whose branches were fervidly pushing George Bush to start the war that freed Israel from a hostile regime.

And here comes Obama to crawl in the dust at the feet of AIPAC and go out of his way to justify a policy that completely negates his own ideas.

OK he promises to safeguard Israel’s security at any cost. That is usual. OK he threatens darkly against Iran, even though he promised to meet their leaders and settle all problems peacefully. OK he promised to bring back our three captured soldiers (believing, mistakenly, that all three are held by Hizbullah – an error that shows, by the way, how sketchy is his knowledge of our affairs.)

But his declaration about Jerusalem breaks all bounds. It is no exaggeration to call it scandalous.

No Palestinian, no Arab, no Muslim will make peace with Israel if the Haram-al-Sharif compound (also called the Temple Mount), one of the three holiest places of Islam and the most outstanding symbol of Palestinian nationalism, is not transferred to Palestinian sovereignty. That is one of the core issues of the conflict.

On that very issue, the Camp David conference of 2000 broke up, even though the then Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, was willing to divide Jerusalem in some manner.

Along comes Obama and retrieves from the junkyard the outworn slogan “Undivided Jerusalem, the Capital of Israel for all Eternity”. Since Camp David, all Israeli governments have understood that this mantra constitutes an insurmountable obstacle to any peace process. It has disappeared – quietly, almost secretly – from the arsenal of official slogans. Only the Israeli (and American-Jewish) Right sticks to it, and for the same reason: to smother at birth any chance for a peace that would necessitate the dismantling of the settlements.

In prior US presidential races, the pandering candidates thought that it was enough to promise that the US embassy would be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. After being elected, not one of the candidates ever did anything about this promise. All were persuaded by the State Department that it would harm basic American interests.

Obama went much further. Quite possibly, this was only lip service and he was telling himself: OK, I must say this in order to get elected. After that, God is great.

But even so the fact cannot be ignored: the fear of AIPAC is so terrible, that even this candidate, who promises change in all matters, does not dare. In this matter he accepts the worst old-style Washington routine. He is prepared to sacrifice the most basic American interests. After all, the US has a vital interest in achieving an Israeli-Palestinian peace that will allow it to find ways to the hearts of the Arab masses from Iraq to Morocco. Obama has harmed his image in the Muslim world and mortgaged his future – if and when he is elected president.

See our last posts on Israel and Barack Obama and AIPAC.

  1. Obama’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee Record
    My impression is the Israeli establishment might be suspicious of U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee member Obama, mainly because Jimmy Carter’s former national security affairs adviser, Brzezinski, is an Obama foreign policy advisor. Although Brzezinski opposes the right of return for the Palestinian diaspora and has proposed inviting Israel to become a member of NATO, Brzezinski has also tended to support the foreign policy line being proposed by Walt & Mearsheimer; and Brzezinski has been critical of the special influence that AIPAC and other domestic special interest pressure groups seem to have gained over the U.S. Establishment’s foreign policy decision-making process in recent years.

    But in predicting what President Obama will do when he moves into the White House in January 2009, I think you really have to examine what he has done to attempt to change U.S. foreign policy since he began sitting on the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee in early 2005. There’s apparently evidence that Obama apparently praised former Chevron board member Rice prior to voting to confirm Rice as General Colin Powell’s successor as U.S. Secretary of State. Yet I don’t think there’s much evidence that Obama has done anything as a U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee member to finally bring an end to all U.S. military aid to the Israeli government, the Egyptian government, the Saudi government, the Kuwait government or the Palestinian Authority officials who were voted out of office by people in Gaza a few years ago.

    What also needs to be examined, I think, is the degree to which Obama’s 2002 antiwar speech was actually based on any committment to establishing a pacifist U.S. government foreign policy, in accordance with the philosophical/political views of Martin Luther King. Although some people have been trying to market Obama as the “Martin Luther King of the 21st-century” in recent months, if Obama is failing to advocate in favor of a pacifist U.S. government foreign policy like Martin Luther King did, then it seems politically illogical to now claim that Obama is some kind of reincarnation of Martin Luther King.

    According to David Mendell’s book, “Obama”, the wealthy former head of the now-deceased former U.S. Senator from Illinois Paul Simon’s Chicago office, Betty Lou Saltzman, organized the 2002 anti-war demo at which Obama gave his antiwar speach. What apparently happened was that Saltzman invited Obama to speak there and Obama then consulted with his political advisors to determine whether speaking at the antiwar rally would help or hinder his political career. Obama’s advisors agreed that, given the personal wealth and political clout that the Saltzman had, it would be too politically risky for Obama to alienate her by refusing to speak at the antiwar rally. And, predictably, (after Penny Pritzker agreed to bankroll Obama’s 2004 run for the U.S. Senate) shortly afterwards, Saltzman proved to be an important political supporter of Obama’s campaign to regain the U.S. Senate seat held by her former boss, Paul Simon.