Thursday, February 21, 2008

Why Obama is Better for Israel, by Daniel Levy

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.

Daniel Levy is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Prospects for Peace Initiative at The Century Foundation and a Senior Fellow and Director of the Middle East Initiative at the New America Foundation.

During the Barak Government, he worked in the Prime Minister's Office as special adviser and head of the Jerusalem Affairs unit under Minister Haim Ramon. He also worked as senior policy adviser to former Israeli Minister of Justice, Yossi Beilin. He was a member of the official Israeli delegation to the Taba negotiations with the Palestinians in January 2001, and previously served on the negotiating team to the “Oslo B” Agreement from May to September 1995, under Prime Minister Rabin. In 2003, he worked as an analyst for the International Crisis Group Middle East Program. Daniel was the lead Israeli drafter of the Geneva Initiative and prior to joining The Century Foundation and New America Foundation was directing policy planning and international relations at the Geneva Campaign Headquarters in Tel Aviv.

Originally published as "Obama and Israel: Missing the Point" at Daniel Levy's Prospects for Peace blog

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