Saturday, February 16, 2008

Obama's Middle East: Good for the Jews?, Gidon D. Remba

Obama’s Middle East: Good for the Jews

By Gidon D. Remba
Published in
The Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, February 14, 2007
The Ohio Jewish Chronicle, February 28, 2007
To win the affection of the American Jewish community, a candidate for President of the United States must, at minimum, demonstrate that he or she is a trusted friend of Israel who will ardently stand up for its rights and needs. Barack Obama, who has served for the last three years as my U.S. Senator, and before that for eight years as a state senator, has long enjoyed the enthusiastic support of the Chicago Jewish community.

Even the neoconservative New York Sun newspaper recently confessed: “We're no shills for Mr. Obama, but these Republicans [who are “preparing to attack Senator Obama for his supposed lack of support for Israel”] haven't checked their facts. At least by our lights, Mr. Obama's commitment to Israel, as he has articulated it so far in his campaign, is quite moving and a tribute to the broad, bipartisan support that the Jewish state has in America.” (Obama’s two-fisted defense of the Jewish state is summed up well on his website,, under Foreign Policy: Israel, in “Barack Obama: A Strong Record of Supporting the Security, Peace, and Prosperity of Israel”).

Yet a prominent Israeli official recently wrote an American friend, voicing a protest often heard in Israel and recycled by Obama’s swaggering stateside Jewish critics, that “We need an American president who will be tough on Iran, who will use effective sanctions, not one who will schmooze with the ayatollahs.” Such sentiments, while understandable, offer a cartoonish caricature of smart diplomacy, a mega-weapon in Israel’s and America’s arsenals whose use most Democrats and moderate Republicans have endorsed with regard to Iran.

The ranks of the diplo-warriors include US Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), Senator Chuck Hagel (R-NE), and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Lantos (D-CA), the only Holocaust survivor in the U.S. Congress and the dean of Israel’s Capitol Hill champions. Lantos, who passed away as this column went to press, remarked recently: “I continue to favor dialogue between our two countries, in contrast to the Administration's belligerent and stiff-necked refusal to talk with Tehran. And I believe we need to use every means at our disposal - economic, political and diplomatic - to persuade Iranians that peaceful development of energy options, free of any hint of military use, is well within reach."

Obama’s tough-guy critics on Iran are victims of a double irony. Obama rightly notes that our failure under Bush to bargain unconditionally with Iran has helped empower extremists like Ahmadinejad, weakening pragmatists in the clerical government who seek détente with the U.S. and the West, including Israel. Obama’s approach gives the U.S. far more leverage against Iranian bad acts against us and Israel. He will deploy a fuller range of carrots and sticks in dealing with the regime, making him the leader of choice for those who want the United States to exercise the breadth of its power when facing down the ayatollahs.

Obama has also been at the forefront of the U.S. Senate in fashioning more aggressive economic measures against Iran, co-sponsoring key sanctions legislation, and in May 2007 authoring and introducing as the primary sponsor the Iran Sanctions Enabling Act. Obama will engage antagonists with a combination of economic pressures and hard bargaining the way no-nonsense Republican and Democratic administrations did during the Cold War with the Soviet Union, the “evil empire” of earlier time.

While the American Jewish Committee has disavowed an internal memo expressing concern over Obama’s calls for engagement with Iran, “and for negotiating with other rogue states, notably Syria,” its rogue author ignored the fact that Israel’s Prime Minister Olmert, backed by the Israeli defense establishment, has been seeking to resume peace talks with Syrian President Bashar Assad, despite heat from the Bush Administration. Obama told the National Jewish Democratic Council that “We should never seek to dictate what is best for the Israelis and their security interests. No Israeli Prime Minister should ever feel dragged to or blocked from the negotiating table by the United States,” a dig at the Bush Administration’s arm-twisting Israel against exploring peace prospects with Syria.

Since when did the neoconservative nostrum “wage only sanctions and war on the axis of evil” become the touchstone for defining "pro-Israel”? Apparently the Bush Administration has itself strayed from this failed doctrine—see Iraq—by hashing out a deal with North Korea to trade denuclearization steps for economic aid and other incentives.

Similarly, the debate between fans and dissenters from the Bush Administration’s Iraq strategy comes down to one side’s blind faith that more military force will bring order to Iraq and the broader Middle East, while the other holds that we have failed to wield the full array of power at America’s disposal, and what instruments we have used, we have played artlessly. Obama’s Jewish critics bluster, with Philadelphia Jewish Exponent Editor Jonathan Tobin, that “a precipitous skedaddle from Iraq would leave both the United States and Israel seriously weakened.” That might be so if it were truly reckless, uncoordinated and unaccompanied by a muscular diplomatic surge. If, following Obama’s Republican rivals, we practice more faith-based military surges, American prestige and Israeli security will be battered even more than they already have by this war of folly. Their gambit has empowered Iran, emboldened Al Qaeda, and threatened regional stability with millions of Iraqi refugees and a bloody Sunni-Shia civil conflict which could set aflame the entire Middle East.

With the Bush surge failing to set the stage for Iraqi reconciliation, Obama advocates the more sober and realistic view, endowing the U.S. with a stronger hand to play with the Iraqi government. The reach of that hand is broadened by hard-nosed diplomacy to encourage Iraq’s neighbors to cooperate in a new regional stabilization effort:

“Removing our troops is part of applying real pressure on Iraq's leaders to end their civil war. There is no military solution in Iraq, and there never was… We must get out strategically and carefully, removing troops from secure areas first, and keeping troops in more volatile areas until later….My plan also allows for a limited number of U.S. troops to remain and prevent Iraq from becoming a haven for international terrorism and reduce the risk of all-out chaos. In addition, we will redeploy our troops to other locations in the region, reassuring our allies that we will stay engaged in the Middle East.”

“If - but only if - Iraq makes political progress and their security forces are not sectarian, we should continue to train and equip those forces…The future of our military, our foreign policy, and our national purpose cannot be hostage to the inaction of the Iraqi government.”

Obama’s critics rely on scare tactics, innuendo and guilt by association. They distort his positions, attacking only straw men, because they are afraid to debate his real proposals on their merits. Obama is the preferred candidate for those who want to turbo-charge American strength and unity at home and abroad. And that’s truly good for Israel—and for the Jews.

Gidon D. Remba is a veteran Israel activist and commentator. He blogs at and can be reached at This article represents his personal views and not those of any organization.

Mr. Remba's commentaries on Israel, the Middle East and Jewish affairs have appeared widely in the Jewish and general press, including the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times, the Chicago Sun Times, the Nation, Ha’aretz, the Forward, the Jerusalem Post, the Jerusalem Report, Tikkun, and the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, where he writes a monthly column on Israel.
Mr. Remba served as Senior Foreign Press Editor and Translator in the Israel Prime Minister's Office from 1977-1978 during the Egyptian-Israeli Camp David peace process. He translated the Knesset speeches of Prime Minister Menachem Begin, Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan, and Defense Minister Ezer Weizman, as well as Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Rabin and other Israeli leaders for the foreign press during the period from Egyptian President Sadat's visit to Jerusalem until the Camp David Peace Accords. He co-translated Sadat's Knesset speech into English for the world press.

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