Obama. What’s Complicated Here?

Gershom Gorenberg

Dan Kurtzer, the former U.S. Ambassador to Israel and an Orthodox Jew, is in Jerusalem for the 60th anniversary celebrations. This morning my wife heard him being interviewed on Israeli Radio, in Hebrew, about the U.S. election. Kurtzer explained that he’s backing Barack Obama.

This was not exactly a revelation. Kurtzer has explained his reasons for backing Obama at length . Here’s some key snippets:

…we have had eight years of disaster with respect to our foreign policy, and I have to share with you as an analyst, we have had eight years that have [compromised] the security of the state of Israel.
An administration that has ignored the search for peace in the Middle East to a point where you have chaos in the Palestinian Authority, and you have a sham process called the Annapolis process, in which our Secretary of State, whom I admire personally, travels to region and announces when she gets there that she is bringing no new ideas.
You have an administration that hasn’t engaged in the peace process, and so inherited a bad situation in 2001 and is leaving it in a worse situation in 2008. And you have an administration that has gotten us engaged in a war in Iraq that has not only cost American lives… but it’s now being called the $3 trillion war…And I would share with you that the cost to the security of Israel is incalculable.
I was in Israel [as Ambassador] when this was being contemplated and when it started… Now, you’ve heard the nonsense which is out there which suggests that Israel or the Jewish community or the Israel lobby pushed this war on the administration. And I can tell you it is nonsense, because there was not one Israeli official and not one Israeli academic who suggested that this war was going to end well. They all warned against exactly the problems we have experienced since this war started…

Knowing this, Kurtzer said, he considered which candidate was likely to improve Israel’s situation. The answer was Obama, and the reason is very simple:

We have one candidate who is prepared to do diplomacy. Only one candidate…
We have had eight years of no diplomacy, and you have two candidates out there who tell us they don’t want to talk to our enemies…
There is one candidate who believes in diplomacy and his name is Barack Obama.

There’s nothing complicated about what Kurtzer is saying. Strangely, though, some Jews seem to be having doubts. Marc Ambinder cites Gallup’s tracking polls , showing that currently 61% of Jews would vote for Obama, 32% for McCain. This looks like a blow-out, but it’s actually a considerably poorer showing than a Democratic presidential candidate normally gets among Jews. (Note that the percentages are based on aggregate of tracking polls for the entire month of April – presumably because the number of Jews polled on any given day is too small for any sample. So the numbers are out of date; they’re from a long period; and they’re from a time when Obama was taking a lot of blows. Caveat lector.) Those figures, in turn, lead to articles such as this one in the New Republic, suggesting that a poor showing among Jews could cost Obama Florida.

I assume the swing voters among Jews aren’t leaning toward McCain because of his deep knowledge of the economy, or because they can count on him to appoint justices who will protect the separation of church and state. Presumably, at least one strong reason is the suspicion fomented by rightwing mass-emailers that Obama is somehow bad for Israel. The stuff recycles; a political reporter reports that Obama has a Jewish problem; the media herd grabs the story; the less-informed believe the next crank email they get because – hey – didn’t you hear that Obama has a Jewish problem?

Kurtzer has it right. In four easy steps, here’s why Obama is the best candidate for Israel:

1) As the ambassador says, the Bush administration has been a disaster for Israel. The war in Iraq has empowered Iran. It has pushed a wave of refugees into Jordan, endangering the stability of Israel’s neighbor and strategic ally. The Bush administration has managed to miss every diplomatic opportunity for renewing the peace process with the Palestinians. When Bush came to power, the Second Intifada was still in its early stages. Bush turned his back on any negotiations that could have slowed or reversed the escalation. He missed the chance when Arafat died. As detailed in a report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London last year, and more recently in a Vanity Fair investigative article , the Bush administration’s actions led directly to the takeover of Gaza by Hamas. The administration’s veto on Syrian-Israeli negotiations has blocked Damascus from making a deal in which it would switch allegiances from Iran to the West, and end support for Hezbollah. The outcome is the current crisis in Lebanon, which could soon fall entirely under Iranian control.

“There is a major gap between the perception that Bush has been good for Israel and the reality of Israel’s terrible circumstances,” former US ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk told me back in 2004, with immense diplomatic understatement. Since then, the gap between rhetoric and reality has gotten much wider . (Indyk, I have to note , has been supporting Team Clinton, showing loyalty to his original political patron but not the best foreign-policy judgment.)

2) John McCain promises another four years of Bush’s mistakes. McCain’s understanding of the Mideast is so weak that he doesn’t know the difference between a Sunni and a Shi’ite. McCain wants to continue Bush’s failed policies in Iraq. McCain actively sought the endorsement of John Hagee, whose policy on Israel is based on eager expectation of apocalypse, bloody battles on Israeli soil and the conversion of the Jews. As I’ve noted before , Hagee has expressed uncommon sympathy, in writing, for Yigal Amir, the terrorist who assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in order to prevent peace. If Hagee’s constituency is the one that McCain wants to satisfy, he will avoid any diplomatic involvement in the Middle East. Israelis will pay the price in ongoing conflict and in rising Iranian influence.

3) Since Hillary Clinton says she’s still in the race, I have to point out that she is running on a Mideast policy that is more hawkish than Bill’s positions, and more hawkish than the Israeli government.

The most forgiving explanation I’ve heard is that she is pandering to those Jewish voters who don’t realize that Israel’s centrist leaders have reevaluated the country’s strategic needs – or that she is still caught in the post-9/11 mindset that a Democratic has to be even more bellicose than a Republican to show she’s not soft. The less forgiving explanation is that she really is hawkish, as demonstrated in her disastrous vote for the war in Iraq.

4) The one candidate who speaks in clear terms of taking a new approach to the Mideast is Obama. This is what scares the small coterie of American Jewish rightists who would eagerly fight to the last Israeli. If you care about Israel, you should hit “delete” when you get their emails.

Obama is the one candidate who had the sense to oppose the war in Iraq. He’s the one candidate whose statement on Israel expresses support for a two-state solution, which is the country’s path to peaceful future and is today the consensus position in Israel. He’s the one proposing a clear break from the disastrous Bush policies, and a turn to trying diplomacy.

Ah, say the cynics, but why believe that diplomacy could work? As Haim wrote in his recent post on the Geneva process,

…in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the devil is not in the details. The devil is the conflict of narratives.

That is, the two sides have such a different account of history, of what is at stake today, and of the meaning of symbolic events and landmarks, that they seem unable to negotiate. They don’t even agree on what went wrong in previous talks (as I explain in this article from the American Prospect).

But narrative isn’t fixed. The past isn’t dead; it’s constantly rewritten. The meaning of symbols can shift – to exacerbate conflict or make compromise possible. A few rare leaders understand this, and work to recast the stories and the symbols. In his speech on race, Obama showed that he is capable of aiming for that. If he can apply that skill to the Mideast tangle, there’s a chance he can move diplomacy forward. He’s certainly the only candidate who seems to be considering how to do so. Dan Kurtzer is right.

7 thoughts on “Obama. What’s Complicated Here?”

  1. I don’t understand why you think Obama will be able to make peace. In the 1990’s you all had the “dream team”—- Kurtzer, Miller, Ross, Malley, all Jews who have taken upon themselves to impose on Israel what they know to be good for it, plus a pro-active President, Bill Clinton who invited Arafat to the White House more than any other foreigner. There was the Camp David summit and the Taba meetings. It was all on the table, with maximum Presidential involvement. So what was the outcome? A bloody war, over a thousand Jews murdered and thousands more wounded. Why should Obama be able to do anything different? He has no experience. What does he know about the Middle East? Does he know more than Bush who created a catastrophe in Iraq? Geraldine Ferraro was correct, even though she paid for saying it : A white candidate with a similar lack of experience (2 years in the Senate, preceded by time in the Illinois state legislature) would not be considered a serious candidate. I am absolutely amazed at how all you “progressives” have fallenhead-over-heels in love with him, simply because he is a smooth talker, and how you all apologize for his connection with Jeremiah Wright (any white candidate who had to such a close, intimate relationship with someone with such radical views would have the “progressives” screaming to high heaven). Do you think Assad, HAMAS or Ahmedinejad are going to change their views as a result of “engagement” with Obama and listening to him talk?

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