On Tuesday, American Jews have an opportunity to make history by helping to elect Barack Obama president of the United States. As a wholehearted supporter of Hillary Clinton in the primaries, this is not the history I had originally hoped to make, but it is now an opportunity I enthusiastically embrace.
My journey began with Hillary's injunction to "support Barack Obama." First, I attended the AIPAC policy conference to listen to his speech on the morning after he clinched the nomination. All the usual pro-Israel rhetoric was there, but something else distinguished the speech and the candidate.
First, Obama clearly articulated his understanding that Iran's nuclear program represented a grave threat, and that if he became president he would do everything in his power to prevent Teheran from acquiring nuclear weapons. He explained that he would first try tougher economic sanctions, combined with direct diplomatic engagement with Iran's government. If that failed, it would at least make the other options, including the possible use of force, more acceptable at home and abroad.
As someone who had responsibility for dealing with Iran during the Clinton administration, I believe that is the only sensible approach, especially because the Bush strategy of insisting on Iran suspending enrichment as a precondition for negotiations has produced neither suspension nor negotiations - just 4,000 Iranian centrifuges busily spinning up a stockpile of enriched uranium that could quickly be turned into weapons grade material.
Then Obama turned to Israel's quest for security and peace with its neighbors. Most politicians appearing at the AIPAC policy conference steer clear of this topic. But Obama argued - correctly in my view - that George W. Bush's seven-year abandonment of peace efforts and his unprecedented boycott of the Israeli-Syrian negotiations had not served Israel well. He declared that he would help Israel pursue peace from the beginning of his presidency - on the Syrian as well as Palestinian fronts. Obama received a prolonged, standing ovation.
He was also forthright in his call for the Israeli government to fulfill its promise to freeze settlement activity. He later explained that he would not adhere blindly to the most hawkish position in the Jewish community "just because that's the safest ground." And he subsequently admonished Palestinians that their refugees would not have a right to return to Israel, and that the PA would have to meet its security commitments.
But the most poignant moment came at the end of his speech, when Obama spoke personally about the debt he owed American Jews for the alliance they had forged with the African-American community in the pursuit of civil rights in the 1960s. He noted that he would not have been able to aspire to the highest office in the land without that partnership, and he pledged to repair its tattered state.
COMPELLING STUFF, but what about Jeremiah Wright, Obama's pastor? For reassurance on that count I turned to Lester Crown, the wise and deeply-committed leader of the Chicago Jewish community who told me how steadfast a friend Obama had been from the start of his political career in the Windy City, how he had in fact been criticized by black political rivals for being too close to the Jewish community.
What about Obama's advisers? I never took the scare-mongering on that count seriously. Tony Lake was my boss in Bill Clinton's National Security Council and always expressed strong support for Israel; after he left government, he converted to Judaism. Obama draws his Middle East advice from two former colleagues of mine - Dennis Ross and Dan Kurtzer - both of whom are known friends of Israel. And he counts as some of his strongest supporters current and former members of Congress who have made support for Israel central to their work - people like Robert Wexler, Debbie Wasserman-Schultz and Mel Levine.
However, from my own experience in the White House, it falls to the president to make the lonely judgment calls. At those critical moments, Bill Clinton would turn to his vice president, Al Gore, who would inevitably stiffen his spine, counsel patience or steer him clear of a counterproductive choice. Can anyone imagine Sarah Palin doing that with an impulsive John McCain? But Obama will be able to turn to Joe Biden with his 30 years of experience in the Senate and, on issues critical to the Jewish community, Joe has a long, unblemished pro-Israel record.
Nevertheless, to my mind what was most important was whether Obama could pass the kishke test. Did he understand, in his gut, the narrowness of Israel's security margins, and the fragile psyche of the Israeli people that could be shattered if Israel were left to face its enemies alone? When the chips are down, would Obama be in the trenches with Israel?
I found my reassurance on these issues in an extraordinary interview given by Obama to Jeffrey Goldberg in the May 12 edition of the Atlantic. Obama explained that Israel's struggle for survival on "hardscrabble land" had a personal significance to him, "because it speaks to my history of being uprooted, it speaks to the African-American story of exodus." Obama then went on to identify with that insecurity that abides in Israeli hearts: "The notion that a vibrant, successful society with incredible economic growth and incredible cultural vitality is still plagued by this notion that it could all end at any moment... I would not want to raise my children in those circumstances. I want to make sure that the people of Israel, when they kiss their kids and put them on that bus feel no more existential dread than any parent does whenever their kids leave their sight."
I don't believe that those words were just talking points fed to the candidate by his Jewish advisers. I believe Barack Obama passes the kishke test. I believe that he will be a real friend of Israel in the White House and that he will do his best to heal the world. I believe he has the intellect, judgment, temperament, character, and emotional instincts to be a great president for the United States, for the US Jewish community, and for Israel.
The writer is director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington. He served as US ambassador to Israel in the Clinton administration.
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