Jerusalem — It’s understandable why Israelis are keenly interested in the U.S. presidential elections this year. One could make the case that their lives depend on the outcome.
After all, Israel faces an existential threat from Iran, whose president threatens to destroy the Jewish state even as Tehran moves closer to developing nuclear weapons. How the successor to George W. Bush in the White House deals with this dilemma could affect Israelis more directly than it does Americans, and so far during my visit to Israel, I have yet to meet anyone supportive of Barack Obama.
On the contrary, some top Mideast experts here are voicing concern that the Democratic contender’s mix of foreign policy inexperience and what they consider to be naïveté in his approach to dealing with autocratic adversaries adds up to a very real danger for Israel.
Speaking on a panel at a conference at Bar-Ilan University last Thursday, sponsored by the university’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies (BESA), Barry Rubin, a well-known and respected Mideast expert and academic, said an Obama victory would precipitate “the most dangerous crisis facing the world.”
After citing his own credentials as a former Washingtonian who worked for the campaigns of numerous Democratic presidential candidates, going back to John Kennedy in 1960, Rubin described Obama as “not the candidate of the [moderate] Arab states, but the candidate of the Islamists, whether he knows it or not.
“If elected, he will be the most anti-Israel president in American history,” asserted Rubin, who is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center at IDC, the Interdisciplinary Center of Herzliya, and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal.
He said that while Obama speaks of his willingness to meet with autocratic leaders of countries like Iran and Syria, he only uses the carrot half of the carrot/stick equation.
“He never mentions what he would do if the talks fail, and he doesn’t talk about the need for the U.S. to show its strength.”
The other Israeli panelist, Eytan Gilboa of the sponsoring BESA Center, was not as critical as Rubin. But he said that Obama has the American Arab vote “in his pocket” and that his lack of experience and seeming eagerness to talk through any problem were “worrisome” traits.
Such sentiments were reflected in recent Jerusalem Post polls showing that Israelis strongly favored Hillary Clinton over John McCain, and that McCain, in turn, won handily over Obama.
Herb Keinon, a seasoned and thoughtful Post reporter, told me that Israelis do not buy into the false rumors that Obama is a Muslim or anti-Israel. But while they trust Clinton and are warm toward McCain, they just don’t know much about Obama.
President Bush is extremely popular with Israelis because he allowed Jerusalem to take the fight to the Arab militants during the intifada, and because they believe he has a special feeling about the Jewish state.
“Israelis feel that McCain understands Israel’s security needs, and they are comforted by the fact that [Sen. Joe] Lieberman is so close to him,” Keinon noted.
They are not sure if Obama has a special connection to the Jewish state, and according to Keinon, Israelis worry that “Obama’s learning curve” on the Mideast may take a year or two in office, and during that time Israel may be tested severely by adversaries like Iran and its surrogates, Hamas and Hezbollah.
Jeffrey Goldberg, the Atlantic Monthly national correspondent who interviewed Obama about Israel and Jewish issues several weeks ago, posted an interview with McCain on those topics this week (read it here). He noted that the differences between them are “stark,” with Obama viewing the key challenge in the Mideast to be the Israeli-Palestinian conflict while McCain says it is Islamic extremism. And Obama called Israel’s settlements “not helpful”; McCain did not criticize them, instead saying that rocket attacks on Sderot is the most urgent issue.
It’s true that Obama has high-profile supporters in the Jewish community but several were involved in fostering the Oslo peace process, which does not score many points for the Democrat here in Israel.
Others point out, though, that Israel is no closer to peace than it was under President Bush, for all his good feelings, and that maybe what Jerusalem needs is an administration that can bring negotiations to fruition.
That’s the basic divide in the American Jewish community: whether it’s best for Israel to have Washington sit back and let Israel handle its own conflicts, be they military or diplomatic, or have Washington assert itself more in peace talks “for Israel’s own good,” as some would insist.
The difference is that in Israel, the issues of national security are a lot closer to home, physically and existentially.
Israelis have proven that they are capable of changing their minds about American political leaders, and Hillary Clinton is a vivid example. After her encounter with Suha Arafat some years ago — the kiss seen ‘round the world — she was not a favorite here. But since becoming a senator from New York and making all the right moves when it comes to supporting and defending Israel, she has improved her stature immensely.
Whether or not Barack Obama can become the darling of Israelis remains to be seen, but for the moment that prospect is a long way off.
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