Obama: Still Not Ready for Prime Time

On the eve of Senator Barack Obama’s visit last week to Israel, Yossi Klein Halevi penned a gem of an essay in The New Republic in the form of an open letter to the Democratic presidential candidate. Halevi began by assuring Obama that Israelis have paid little attention to such diversions as his middle name (Hussein), his early years spent in Indonesia being raised by a Moslem step-father, or any of the other topics so beloved by viral e-mailers. Nor does Barack’s color evoke any concern in a country that “rescued tens of thousands of African Jews and turned their arrival into a national celebration.”

Halevi did not even mention Obama’s former spiritual mentor pastor Jeremiah Wright. He was writing as a citizen of Israel, and the question of Obama’s views on America are of necessity of far less moment to Israelis than they are to American. The former are far more interested in knowing Senator Obama’s views on Israel.

Here too Halevi was quick to assure Obama that few in Israel doubt his friendship: “Your description of Israeli security as ‘sacrosanct’ and your passionate endorsement of Israel’s cause at the annual AIPAC conference in Washington were greeted with banner headlines in the Israeli press.”

But precisely because Israelis do not suspect Obama of harboring any ill-will towards them were they hoping for something more from him than professions of friendship and sympathy for the people of Sderot. Above all, they want some indication that Obama understands their predicament.

Here too Halevi was forthright: [A]s much as Israelis want to embrace you, there is anxiety about your candidacy. . . . Israelis worry that, as president, you might act too hastily in trying to solve the Palestinian problem, and not hastily enough in trying to solve the Iranian problem.”

In truth, Obama’s visit to Israel had less to do with allaying the fears of Israelis – few of whom will vote in the American presidential election – and more to do with providing American Jews the fig leaf they need to vote for Obama. And for that purpose the photo-ops in Sderot, Yad Vashem, and at the Kotel were all that was required. General professions of support for Israel’s right to exist and an aye vote on the annual appropriations have long been the only thing most American Jews require to drape upon a Democratic candidate the mantle pro-Israel.

ISRAELIS, however, were far less likely to be reassured by Senator Obama’s statements in Israel on precisely the two issues pointed to by Halevi: negotiations with the Palestinians and Iran. Senator Obama announced that he will make the resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict a high priority from day one of his administration.

That is bad news indeed for Israel. For one thing, it indicates that he believes there is a ready solution to the conflict. No president knowingly makes something a priority item unless he views success as likely. And if Obama thinks there is a ready solution to the conflict that can only come in one form: Israel’s return to the ’67 borders. For once Prime Minister Olmert got it right last week when he said that even Israel’s best friends, when they envision Israel’s eventual contours, think “in terms of the ’67 borders.”

Obama basically confirmed that last week. Asked by Jerusalem Post editor David Horowitz about Prime Minister Olmert’s description of the great achievement of the Bush administration as its recognition that realities on the ground make a return to the ’67 borders impossible, Barack acknowledged that Israel might justify “’67 plus” in terms of the need for a security buffer, “but they’ve got to consider whether getting that buffer is worth the antagonism of the other party.”

In those words, lies the implicit assumption that the crux of the issue is Israeli settlements on territory seized in 1967 and the antagonism they engender, not the refusal of the Palestinians to accept the existence of Israel in any borders. Consider, however, the results of a June 5-7 poll by the Palestinian enter for Policy and Survey Research. In response to a question whether reconciliation between Palestinians and Israelis would be possible after the conclusion of a peace agreement and the establishment of a Palestinian state, a plurality of Palestinians (43%) answered that reconciliation is impossible ever; 20.5% that it is only possible in many generations; and 12.4% that it is only possible in the next generation.

Nor does there seem to be any more acceptance of Israel among the senior political echelons with whom Israel is supposed to conclude some kind of peace treaty. Last week, the PA sent its warmest congratulations to child_murderer Samir Kuntar on his release from an Israeli jail and announced plans for festive celebrations in honor of Dalal Mughrabi, the mastermind of the Coastal Road massacre in which 37 Israelis were murdered. Those gestures make it difficult to understand how Obama could credit Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salaam Fayd with doing everything possible “to address some of the systemic failures of the Palestinian Authority,” (unless ceaseless incitement against Israel is not one of those systemic failures in his eyes.)

In sum, it seems likely that an Obama administration will push Israel to withdraw from Judea and Samaria, just as it did from Southern Lebanon and Gaza, without retaining any security buffers lest it incur Palestinian antagonism. That is pretty close to Einstein’s definition of insanity – the repetition of the same action with the expectation of different results.

A SECOND IMPLICIT assumption behind Senator Obama’s promise to commence his efforts at Mideast peacemaking from day one is that the Palestinian-Israel conflict lies at the heart of the region’s problems. Otherwise why make its resolution such a high priority. In an interview with Atlantic, Obama characterized the Palestinian-Israel conflict as “constant sore” that “infect[s] all of our foreign policy” and “provides an excuse for anti-American militant jihadists.” It is not altogether clear why anti-American jihadists need an “excuse.” The Ayatollah Khomeini did not hesitate to call America “the Great Satan” and Israel “the Little Satan.” In his view, Israel was an American outpost, not vice versa.

Obama’s view of the centrality of the Palestinian-Israel conflict is consistent with his choice of foreign policy advisors. One of those advisors is former Congressman Lee Hamilton, co-chairman, along with James Baker, of the Iraq Study Group, which described the Arab-Israeli conflict as the crux of Middle East instability, and recommended dramatic Israeli concessions as the cure. Other advisors, like Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter’s National Security advisor, are even more hostile. Brzezinski is one of the few academic defenders of John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt’s “The Israel Lobby,” and shares those authors’ view that Israel is a strategic liability to the United States.

The view that the Palestinian-Israel conflict is at the heart of all that ails the Middle East cannot bear scrutiny. Most of the major conflicts in the region: the Iraq-Iran war, the first Iraq War; civil wars in Lebanon; Sunni-Shiite tensions throughout the region; the Syrian killing of over 20,000 of its own citizens in a few days in Homa have absolutely nothing to do with Israel. Despite its vast oil wealth, the region continues to rank at the bottom or near it on the Freedom Index, literacy, empowerment of women, and other indicia of development. Again, these failures have nothing to do with Israel.

Obama’s downplaying of the dysfunctions of the Arab world is of a piece with his refusal to see the West as at war with militant Islam. He continues to view defending against terrorism from a criminal law perspective rather than as a war on a highly ideological, albeit amorphous, enemy. In a study prepared for the Journal of International Security Studies comparing the foreign policy positions of John McCain to those of Barack Obama, Michael Oren concluded that Obama still perceives terrorism in terms as criminal acts to be tried after the fact by court. Thus he points to the trial of the first World Trade Center bombers as proof of the strength of our criminal justice system.

The problem with that approach is that criminal trials, such as those of the first World Trade Center bombers, always come too late.. The Clinton administration’s approach to terrorism of rounding up a few bad guys and putting them on trial led straight to 9/11.

While in Israel, Obama told David Horowitz of The Jerusalem Post that the number of Moslems who embrace the ideology of jihad is relatively small. But given the number of suicide bombers various Islamic groups have been able to attract, and the euphoric reaction to 9/11 throughout the Arab world, including in the Palestinian Authority, that conclusion seems doubtful.

Obama’s de-emphasis of the ideological/theological nature of the enemy helps explain both his total failure to understand the costs of a precipitous American retreat from Iraq or the threat from a nuclear Iran. Even today, after the evident success of the surge, Obama continues to stubbornly insist that it was not worth the effort. Because of his deafness to theology/ideology he cannot comprehend how America fleeing Iraq would add another new chapter to the jihadist narrative of Islam ascendant, which begins with the expulsion of the Russians from Afghanistan in 1979. A defeated America would have emboldened Iran and attracted thousands of Moslems around the world to the jihadi banner.

His claim that he wants to cut troop levels in Iraq in order to increase them in Afghanistan is profoundly unserious – the Democratic base that nominated Obama opposes all military endeavors, not just the war in Iraq. Talk about more troops in Afghanistan is nothing more than an effort to burnish his tough-guy credentials, just like the recent claim that he would not take the military option off the table versus Iran. And it would be ludicrous if Obama were serious about switching America’s military focus from Iraq – a country of huge strategic importance because of its large oil reserves and proximity to Iran and the Gulf – to Afghanistan, which is of no such importance.

Initially, Obama rated Iran as no more a serious threat to the United States than Cuba or Venezuela. When the discredited National Intelligence Estimate concluded that Iran had suspended its covert nuclear program, Obama hailed the finding and condemned the Bush adminstration’s sabre-rattling. Yet even a cursory reading of the NIE report itself failed to support its authors’ summary conclusion (which they too have now repudiated.). The Iranians had, at most, only suspended certain covert work on weaponization, even as they continued to openly pursue uranium enrichment, the major hurdle to producing a nuclear warhead.

Of late, Obama has hardened his rhetoric about Iran, but still insists that the Iranians “must be given an opportunity to change” before any military action against Iranian nuclear sites would be justified. But by the time a new Obama administration would be ready for negotiations, the Iranians would likely have completed their acquisition of nuclear weapons.

In his demand for open negotiations with the Iranians, Obama seems blissfully unaware that such negotiations have been going on for five years between the Europeans and Iran, and all they have achieved has been to bring Iran to the doorstep of acquiring nuclear weapons without any serious Western response. At the very least, Obama should explain why he hopes to succeed where the Europeans failed: Does he have a tastier carrot to offer or a bigger stick to wield?

In short, the likelihood of Obama doing anything to stop the Iranian nuclear program, or countenancing an Israeli attempt to do so, remain low. And where does that leave Israelis? Still afraid that a President Obama would push too early for agreement on a Palestinian state and too late to do anything to prevent Iran from attacking Israel. Just as he found us.

This article appeared in the Yated Ne’eman on July 30, 2008

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18 Responses

  1. Bob Miller says:

    Every citizen owes it to himself to gather the pertinent facts and judge the candidates accordingly. Our past voting habits and party identifications, and the manipulative outputs of the various media, don’t deserve to be factors in our voting decisions.

    Jews in particular should not enter the voting booth on cruise control. Too much rides on the result.

  2. tzippi says:

    Re the talk radio devolution (15): yes, there’s quite a lot of vitriol and muddy thinking, which is why I tend to listen to conservatives only if they have guests. But while there may be more fun and humor from the liberal hosts, there’s just as much vitriol and ad hominem etc. there. Who do you think is going to have an apoplectic fit on the air first (disclaimer: most of what I know about these guys is from promos for their shows, not the shows themselves, thank G-d) – Michael Savage or Mike Malloy?

    Has the gap between right and left always been this unbridgeable?

  3. LOberstein says:

    The admission by John Edwards that he had an extra marital affair after his previous denials would be devastating to the Democrats if he were the nominee. However, he isn’t and Obama has a “perfect marriage” with MIchelle, no whif of scandal there.
    It goes to show that when you run for public office, your ability to keep anything secret is nil, not your private life, not your tax return, nothing. Has this given us better leaders, I don’t think so. Roosevelt had a long term relationship with Lucy Mercer, it didn’t affect his presidency. Kennedy was promiscuous and it didn’t affect his presidency. Now, that the prudes have taken to destroying a politician for behaviour they don’t really think is bad, we have more hypocriscy but not better government.

  4. LOberstein says:

    Intelligent discussion so far. My wife and I usually drive different cars. Her radio is set to AM, mine to FM where I listen to NPR. Yesterday I drove her car and listened to talk radio.There were no reasoned arguments, just invective and insult that Obama is everything evil and voting for him is an act of treason. I kid you not. Liberals like me, or anyone with some level of intelligence, are repulsed by the ad hominem assault on the man who has won the nomination and has a pretty good chance to be our next President. It amazes me that otherwise intelligent orthodox Jews can buy this drivel hook line and sinker. You can be as conservative as you want, even ally with the Republicans, but don’t delude yourself or sink to the level of talk radio. In the end, the One Above guides the thoughts of the world’s leaders. Israel is in need of much Heavenly Mercy, let us be worthy.

  5. Robin Benveneste says:

    Bush has been infinitely better for Jews and Israelis than Clinton was. How any one can think to compare the two is ludicrous. Clinton, with his cabinet filled with liberal Jews, pressured Israel into suicide – literally suicide, nebach – concessions. A worse “chaver” we never had. Under Bush’s watch, Israel has had relative peace, BH. He has faught terrorism which, by extension, helps Israel. One cannot even compare the two.

    (And anyways its besides the point. Conservative Jews despised Clinton not because of Israel, but because of how he degraded the country, perjured himself, turned the oval office into a brothel, and embaraaed the country. He also appointed extreme leftist Judges to the bench.)

  6. Jayson says:

    I too read Halevi’s article and some of the previous sources mentioned in this entry and it feels jaded that no matter who said what, when, or how, facts are omitted to point out one thing: Jews must be afraid, very afraid, of an impending doom. Fear has driven the US politics and economy down a very dark road. The main thing as a Jew is not to be afraid and to maintain a focus on the road ahead.

    Rosenblum forgets to mention that Obama’s foreign policy also includes Dennis Ross, and avid supporter of Israel’s right to the West Bank. More details on the list of foreign advisors at http://www.fpif.org/fpiftxt/4940

    There is so such cynicism against a presidential candidate who goes to Israel, visits with people who have suffered from terror, and constantly affirms his belief in Israel. See Jeff Goldberg’s interview with Barack Obama to hear the man’s own words:
    http://jeffreygoldberg.theatlantic.com/archives/2008/05/obama_on_zionism_and_hamas.php

    Rosenblum blurs the lines between his own politics and the facts held by Barack Obama. Fear and cynicism are not the way to determined political leaders. Those are the things that lead to violence and hopelessness.

  7. Chaim Fisher says:

    Rosenblum says Bush never said or implied that Israel should return to the ’67 borders, and Rosenblum says that for 7 years Bush told the Palestinians the ball was largely in their court.

    Perhaps a Google search can settle whether or not he has his facts straight.

    Here is a direct quote from George Bush speaking six whole years ago, on June 24, 2002:

    “This means that the Israeli occupation that began in 1967 will be ended through a settlement negotiated between the parties, based on U.N. Resolutions 242 and 338, with Israeli withdrawal to secure and recognized borders.

    We must also resolve questions concerning Jerusalem, the plight and future of Palestinian refugees”

    http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/middle_east/jan-june02/bush_speech_6-24.html

    He hit all three hot buttons long before Rosenblum thinks he did:

    1. 1967
    2. Divided Jerusalem
    3. Palestinian refugee’s rights

    Now Rosenblum can claim that what he said was not what he meant. But we have only what our ears hear and our eyes see…

  8. Charles B. Hall says:

    “Bush has never said or implied that Israel should withdraw to its ‘67 borders.”

    Dear Rabbi Rosenblum,

    You are not correct on this one. The Road Map, published in 2003, explicitly states that the Saudi “peace” plan, which would have Israel withdraw to the pre-1967 borders, should be a basis for final status negotiations. Even worse, it uses the words, “End the occupation that began in 1967.”

    I’m not making this up:

    http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2003/20062.htm

    The Road Map was interpreted by most of the world as support for the pre-1967 boundaries of Israel. Now it is true that since then President Bush has stated that maybe they do not have to be exactly the pre-1967 boundaries. But it is not true to say that he has “never” implied that Israel should withdraw to the pre-1967 boundaries, and it was not and has never been true that there should have been any expectation that the Bush Administration would not expect substantial surrender of territory by Israel. Indeed there is no reason to be “disappointed” with Secretary Rice. She is simply carrying out Bush Administration policy that was made clear in April 2003. And “Land for Peace” has been the policy of every President since 1967 and will continue to be US policy no matter who is elected this November.

    For the record, here is Sen. Obama’s position paper on Israel:

    http://www.barackobama.com/pdf/IsraelFactSheet.pdf

  9. Sholom says:

    Funny thing, R’ Rosenblum . . . somehow your dispassionate analysis always leads to the conclusion that we American Jews are supposed to vote for the Republican. Well, that’s what’s happened and what have got: Hamas controlling Gaza thanks to elections that the US pressured for and Israel didn’t want; elimination of the main buffer between Iran and Israel (taking out Iran’s worst enemy); Condoleeza Rice proclaiming, after the surrender of Gaza, “that is a good first step”; the first US President to ever explicitly call for a two-state solution; and so forth. Gee, not bad for eight years!!!

  10. Jason Berg says:

    Israelis of all “flavors” should stop worrying about American politics and start worrying about the Anti-Emuna Israeli government.

    The American Jews will continue to force whoever is in office to stand by Israel. The Hamastani’s will continue to refuse to recognize Israel and, therefore, there will be no peace for at least a generation or more.

    George Bush was never the “friend” to Israel that conservative American Jews thought he was and Bill Clinton was never truly the enemy to Israel that conservative American Jews thought he was.

    American presidents with major blemishes on their presidency attempt to gain “Carteresque” peace for Israel. Clinton thought it could cleanse his impeachment, Bush thought it might put him in, at best, a more neutral light after his terms ended. Rather than wait until the last year as Bush did, Obama thought their might be momentum that he could use to start off with a global changing issue. For Israelis, the Iranian nukes are the single largest problem. For Christians, Muslims, and Jews outside Israel, the Palestinian issue is the single largest problem.

    Neither Obama nor McCain will have any deleterious impact on Israel. Those of us with faith know that to be true. Sadly, neither will likely have any positive impact either. That must come from a new Israeli government that has emuna in Hashem, not in the US.

  11. Jonathan Rosenblum says:

    Anyone who believes the positions or worldview of McCain and Obama are remotely similar should read the long article prepared by Michael Oren of the Shalem Center on the subject. It is not available on line, but I will be happy to forward it to anyone who writes [email protected]

    For all the legitimate disappointment with Condoleeza Rice and by extension the Bush Administration, there is a big difference between this administration’s last minute push for some kind of agreement, after 7 years of telling the Palestinians that the ball is largely in their court, and Obama’s promise to dive into peacemaking from day one. Bush has never said or implied that Israel should withdraw to its ’67 borders.

  12. Chaim Fisher says:

    Very clear. Obama’s plan for Israel includes Israeli withdrawal from a significant portion of the territories. Just like Kadima.

    But Rosenblum leaves out the main point. Who’s policy would Obama be implementing? George Bush’s!

    It was Bush himself who called for return to the ’67 borders, who called for addressing the Palestinian refugee question, who called for no more settlements, and so on.

    And Rice continues carrying out that policy with a vengeance. She recently demanded Israel cease building in the reches!

    McCain has only echoed those policies.

    So Rosenblum should, logically, have included McCain in all this criticism. I’ll do it for him:

    p.s.: McCain appears to be just the same…

  13. HESHY BULMAN says:

    JONATHAN – AS INCISIVE AS EVER. ALTHOUGH MOST READERS OF RELIGIOUS PAPERS ARE WELL AWARE THAT OBAMA IS BAD NEWS FOR BOTH AMERICA AND ISRAEL, IT IS VITALLY IMPORTANT FOR THIS MESSAGE TO BE REITERATED FROM AN INTELLECTUAL STANDPOINT. ADDITIONALLY, A WELL WRITTEN ARTICLE SUCH AS THIS, APPEARING WHERE IT HAS, CERTAINLY ADVANCES RECENT EFFORTS ON THE PART OF THIS PUBLICATION TO IMPROVE ITS READABILITY. YATED – STILL NOT READY FOR PRIME TIME, BUT GETTING CLOSER.

  14. Aaron says:

    Will some haredim still sell their votes to Obama as they did for the notorious Mrs. Arafat-smoocherng Hillary Clinton for the promise of pardons for felons from their community. What cognitive-dissonance-inducing shocks can we expect this fall?

  15. Bob Miller says:

    If this combination appeals to you, you might consider voting for Obama:

    1. Virtually no legislative record
    2. Will say or disavow anything for political advantage
    3. Close associations with political radicals from childhood
    4. Confused as to what a President is sworn to defend
    5. Leads cult of the clueless

  16. Adamchik says:

    I am frequently mystified by Jewish concerns about Obama, the proponents of which usually overlook the same problems with Republicans.

    Recall that in January President Bush called for “painful political concessions” and “a contiguous Palestinian state.”

    I can only imagine what would be said about Obama had he suggested a “contiguous Palestinian state” and “an end to occupation of Arab lands” as Bush did.

    Even in January Bush said that a peace agreement by the end of 2008 was possible and “I am committed to doing all I can to achieve it.” He also suggested compensation for Palestinians and their descendants

    I doubt that Democratic president will find a Secretary of State as hostile to Israel as Colin Powell or Condoleeza Rice have been.

    We also know that Stephen Hadley, the White House National Security Advisor, has been in Turkey to speak with the Iranians, despite any talk of “appeasement.”

    Democratic leaders are far from perfect, and some farther than others.

    But the (conservative) Jewish blindness to the damage and danger posed by the Republicans is mystifying.

  17. Ori says:

    From discussions with members of the military, freeing troops from Iraq so they can fight in Afghanistan is nonsensical anyway. The limiting factor on US forces in Afghanistan is not the availability of troops, but logistics – the ability to provide needed supplies.

    Landlocked Afghanistan has no ports. Being poor and mountainous, it has no railroads either. This means that every round of ammunition and every gallon of fuel has to move by truck or by airlifted. A modern military uses a lot of ammunition and fuel.

  18. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    The United States is a strategic liability of Israel. It is time to stop taking American money and diversify our options in India, China and Eastern Europe. Israel, like any country, and the Jews throughout history have had no permanent friends, only shifting allies. France and the USSR used to be Israel’s allies. That changed. The shifting sands of diplomacy may soon find us in trouble with the US. It is time to be ahead of the curve for once instead of behind. As the dollar falls, so does the mantle of American power. And let us get the Jews home.