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(photo credit: AP)
Napoleon Bonaparte once defined a leader as "a dealer in hope." But Americans and Israelis yearning for leadership amid crisis from the incoming American president, who during the 2008 campaign was the great purveyor of hope, have thus far been sorely disappointed.
As missiles continue raining down on southern Israel, and the IDF's Gaza campaign enters its second week, only a conspicuous silence has emanated from President-elect Barack Obama's private Hawaii vacation compound.
While President George W. Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and their spokespeople have unequivocally backed Israel's actions and blamed Hamas for abrogating the cease-fire, Obama has declined comment, saying instead that "there's only one president at a time." David Axelrod, Obama's chief strategist, told CBS News that "the Bush administration has to speak for America now" and that "it wouldn't be appropriate for me to opine on these matters." Incoming Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has maintained a similar reticence.
BUT THE Obama team's silence on this important issue is as surprising as it is unfortunate. In the immediate wake of his election, Obama proactively built a team designed to resuscitate the ailing US economy and reassured Americans - while ruffling the Bush administration's feathers - that "help is on the way." Obama presumably acted to calm the markets and to restore the confidence of those who had lost their jobs or retirement savings.
So why not ease the current international turmoil by offering a simple, succinct statement of support for Israel's efforts, something along the lines of "while President Bush speaks for America until I take office, I want to reiterate our president's strong support for Israel's right to defend herself and to strongly encourage Hamas to cease its destabilizing rocket fire." Such a statement would bolster Bush's final efforts to secure a durable cease-fire in the region. It would reassure Israelis that the incoming administration will continue the outgoing one's backing for the Jewish State, even in the face of a hostile "international community." And it would squelch any Hamas fantasies that, if they can only hold out until late January, help will be on the way for them, too.
Instead, by remaining silent, Obama and company have left things ambiguous, thus possibly forcing Israel to act too hastily to ensure success before Bush leaves office.
INTERESTINGLY, MANY voices on the American Left have also urged Obama to speak up, albeit to criticize Israel. Several commentators in The Nation, the liberal magazine, have chided Obama because "neglecting to engage at this critical stage sends the wrong message about the seriousness with which Obama will pursue" an "active role" in pushing for "diplomatic engagement," code words on the left for pressuring Israel to make territorial and other sacrifices.
Another observer lamented that "Obama seems content to fiddle while Gaza burns," instead urging the president-elect to "open a dialogue with Hamas" (again, left-speak for recognizing Hamas's refusal to recognize Israel and endowing it with international legitimacy) and "to break with AIPAC and its allies and to push for a solution in Palestine in a manner that would involve twisting Israeli arms." Obama's allies on the Left have chafed recently at his appointment of centrists like Clinton to key posts in his administration, and they are hungry for him to demonstrate his liberal bona fides at Israel's expense.
At the same time, a virtual skirmish has broken out between pro-Israel liberals, such as The New Republic's Martin Peretz, and various younger left-wing bloggers, who urge a more "nuanced" - read, Arab-friendly - approach to the conflict. As one observer astutely pointed out, "both Peretz and [the leftish bloggers] voted for Obama. Obama has to betray one of them. Let's hope it will be" the bloggers.
UNFORTUNATELY, THIS result is not at all determined, and perhaps Obama has not articulated a position on the current conflagration precisely because he's caught between the two poles of his supporters on the Left and the Center.
Before the election, many of Obama's backers contended in these pages that Obama would continue America's long-standing support for the Jewish state. If so, he should say so, loud and clear.
And while Obama and his advisers are understandably reluctant to undermine the Bush administration's positions by contradicting them before he takes office, as many on the Left passionately desire, there is no such risk in reinforcing Bush's message by echoing it in his own, eloquent way.
When I visited Israel last year during the 60th Independence Day celebrations, President Bush delivered a stirring address to the Knesset, in which he emphasized that "Israel's population may be just over seven million. But when you confront terror and evil, you are 307 million strong, because the United States of America stands with you." Here's hoping that President-elect Obama will demonstrate true leadership by swiftly and unambiguously echoing the outgoing president's staunch affirmation of American support for Israel during her time of need.
The writer is an attorney and Republican activist in San Diego.