Obama Home Run with the Israelis

Obama scored a major political victory in Jerusalem last week in his interview with The Jerusalem Post, the major English-speaking conservative newspaper of Israel. David Horovitz, its lead editor, is a hawk who watches every move of his interviewees. His immense respect for Obama’s substance and performance is irrepressible as we can see here:

Two months ago in the Oval Office, President George W. Bush, coming to the end of a two-term presidency and presumably as expert on Israeli-Palestinian policy as he is ever going to be, was accompanied by a team of no fewer than five advisers and spokespeople during a 40-minute interview with this writer and three other Israeli journalists.

In March, on his whirlwind visit to Israel, Republican presidential nominee John McCain, one of whose primary strengths is said to be his intimate grasp of foreign affairs, chose to bring along Sen. Joe Lieberman to the interview our diplomatic correspondent Herb Keinon and I conducted with him, looked to Lieberman several times for reassurance on his answers and seemed a little flummoxed by a question relating to the nuances of settlement construction.

On Wednesday evening, toward the end of his packed one-day visit here, Barack Obama, the Democratic senator who is leading the race for the White House and who lacks long years of foreign policy involvement, spoke to The Jerusalem Post with only a single aide in his King David Hotel room, and that aide’s sole contribution to the conversation was to suggest that the candidate and I switch seats so that our photographer would get better lighting for his pictures.

Several of Obama’s Middle East advisers – including former Clinton special envoy Dennis Ross and ex-ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer – were hovering in the vicinity. But Obama, who was making only his second visit to Israel, knew precisely what he wanted to say about the most intricate issues confronting and concerning Israel, and expressed himself clearly, even stridently on key subjects.

There is a limit to what can be gauged of a politician’s views as expressed in a relatively short interview at the height of an election campaign. But Obama, who chose to give the Post one of the only two formal sit-down interviews he conducted during his visit, was clearly conveying a carefully formulated message – and it was striking in several areas.

He sought to sound resolute on thwarting Iran’s nuclear drive, while insisting on the need to “exhaust every avenue” before the military option. He was optimistic on the prospects of potential Syrian moderation. He was succinct and blunt on Jerusalem – and distinctly different from the “poor phrasing” of his “Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel and it must remain undivided” comments during his address to AIPAC’s policy conference last month. And most notably, he was explicit and unsympathetic on the matter of West Bank settlement.

Obama embodies in this interview expertise, wisdom and skill. The net effects of his highly professional three hundred man foreign policy team are showing, and his own capacity for listening and balance are emerging at every turn in this overseas trip. Now Obama is paying a price with the Left and with the Arab world for his positions on Israel at this juncture. Al Jazeera carried a piece, for example, entitled “Is Obama an Israel appeaser?” by Al Jazeera’s senior political analyst Marwan Bishara. The heaviest price Obama is paying is for Dennis Ross being so central to his Israeli policy formation. There has been a stark choice in recent years between blame being placed mostly on Yasser Arafat for the failed Camp David talks, and blame for the pro-Israel tilt of Dennis Ross’ role in the talks. It is impossible to say whether Ross’ role now is an indication as to who will take the lead in Israeli/Palestinian interventions of an Obama presidency. But there is no way that Barack Obama can steer the United States back into a positive role as peace broker without a large portion of the pro-Israel community joining him.

The United States is a country that overwhelmingly supports Israel, but also a country where the majority of Jews and the majority of Christians support a two-state solution, even 50% of the evangelicals. The tragedy of the last eight years has not been the pro-Israel stance of the U.S., but a militant White House ideology of force and force only in the Middle East that therefore turned a blind eye to militant settler and IDF behavior on the West Bank and in Gaza, all of which literally brought Hamas to power in Gaza, and Iran to vastly increased regional influence. There is a pervasive habit in global conflict of self-fulfilling prophecy. Militants are always the best friends of militants on the other side; they feed off of each other. And the outgoing White House, Hamas, and the Iranian President fed off of each other.

There will be a sea change on the ground in Israel and Palestine if we simply return to a White House that is committed in word and deed to a real peace process. If we have, come November, an American president who is engaged and serious about peace processes–and a centrist political leadership survives in Israel and Palestine until then–we may have the makings of a three-way partnership in a new peace process. That is what Obama, even with Dennis Ross in tow, can bring to the situation. This is undoubtedly angering the anti-war Left in the United States as can be seen from this article:

It isn’t just Afghanistan, however, that provides a clue as to Obama’s future development as a wartime president in the tradition of Bush, Truman, and FDR: the appointment of Dennis Ross as his principal Middle East adviser is good news for the War Party, specifically for that crucial branch of it that specializes in promoting Israel’s ambitions over America’s national interests.

What these folks are missing is that reversing the damage of the last eight years is going to take a steady and slow pulling back of the United States to the political center on the global stage. Much has changed in eight years that suggests that this time around serious Israeli/Palestinian peacemaking can yield results. There is a significantly greater eagerness in the Arab world to permanently solve the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, including in Syria and Saudi Arabia. There is a significantly greater unity of purpose in the Arab, European, and American worlds that Iranian military escalation of the region through proxies has got to change, and that what is called for is an aggressive diplomatic and economic approach to Iran that is coordinated and global. There is significant agreement globally, and in the U.S., that American military adventurism in the region is a disaster. All of this bodes well for the timeliness of a new American foreign policy spearheaded by a charismatic, centrist, youthful and idealistic new president. What has also got to change is an official American intoxication with violence. Get rid of that, put in a president that embodies that change, and many, many things will begin to shift in the Middle East, including the Arab/Israeli conflict.




© Marc Gopin