Analysis: For Israel, it's also Kurtzer vs Lieberman

This country's lukewarm embrace of Obama is not about race or religion; it's about policy.

obama makes point 224 88 (photo credit: AP)
obama makes point 224 88
(photo credit: AP)
In making Barack Obama their presidential nominee, millions of voters in the US Democratic primaries have declared they want change in Washington. But change in Washington's policy toward Israel is not something most Israelis want to see, which largely explains why the candidate who has so much of America on fire has left so many Israelis cold, including those in the country's corridors of power. How cold? So cold that, "Had Gadya"-like, Hillary Clinton - according to a poll conducted last week by Keevon Research Strategy and Communication - would devour John McCain in a theoretical matchup if the election were held in Israel, and McCain would thump Obama. Is that because Israelis have bought into all the Internet noise about Obama the "closet Muslim," or because of Rev. Jeremiah Wright's tirades and the fact that Obama didn't leave the Trinity United Church of Christ Church in Chicago much, much earlier? Is it a race thing? Hardly. Rather, the Israelis' lack of enthusiasm for the presumptive Democratic candidate stems from other factors. The first is that he is an unknown. Israelis know and trust Clinton. Israelis have heard of McCain for years and trust his go-to man on Israel, Sen. Joe Lieberman. Israelis don't know Obama or his positions and, like most people, generally feel comfortable with what they know and are skeptical of what they don't. Second, there is skepticism of the people with whom Obama is expected to surround himself. And the skepticism is not just about people like Robert Malley, Tony McPeak, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Samantha Power, people who may or may not be advising Obama on the Middle East and who are not known as particularly pro-Israel. The skepticism also surrounds the pro-Israel advocates in Obama's camp. That Obama has picked up the endorsements of Aaron David Miller and Dan Kurtzer, and that Dennis Ross has been listed as part of his Middle East advisory team, may be good news for liberal American Jews, but it is less than a breath of fresh air for many Israeli policy-makers who see this as a harbinger of the return of the Oslo crowd. And, in case anyone hasn't notice, the Oslo crowd - at least on the Israeli political scene - is not exactly in charge, nor is the Oslo process seen by the Israeli public as having been a resounding success. It's not Obama the man who concerns Israeli policy-makers, but rather Obama the policy-maker who will have whispering in his ear pro-Israel advocates who nonetheless support policies that have led to anything but peace, and support the rather patronizing policy of pressuring Israel to "save itself from itself." Although having the US pressure Israel may be the dream of some on the editorial board of Ha'aretz, it is not exactly the favored position of mainstream Israel. This country's lukewarm embrace of Obama is not about race or religion; it's about policy, and the policy that is widely expected here to be advocated by Obama's circle of Middle East advisers is a policy that has, for the most part, been rejected by the Israeli electorate. If the question boils down to whom do you want whispering into the president's ear on the Middle East - Lieberman or Kurtzer, Miller and Ross - it's fair to say that most in the present Israeli government policy-making apparatus would choose Lieberman. US President George W. Bush is widely appreciated here because he pretty much gave Israel a free hand to do what it thought was necessary to bring terrorism to heel. He didn't meddle much, he left us alone. The US administration was appreciated because it did not press Israel into talking to anyone it thought would be counterproductive to talk to. The Bush administration was appreciated in Jerusalem because it ushered in a level of intimacy, of understanding and being on the same page, that had not existed before. The feeling was that Bush "got it," that he understood the threat of terrorism and the nature of the enemies Israel was up against. That Israel is now trying very hard to secure a package of parting gifts from Bush - everything from state-of-the-art weaponry to an upgrade in strategic relations - is a good indication that it feels there may be a chance that the person sitting in that office in January may not be so predisposed to giving such gifts, and that it is necessary to ask while the getting is good. In addition to "change," another buzzword of the Obama campaign - at least in terms of foreign policy - has been "engagement." And, like change, this does not thrill Jerusalem. Israel was very comfortable with a US president who held as much antipathy toward our enemies - Hamas, Hizbullah, Syria and Iran - as we did. But when Obama talks about engagement, it makes people here nervous. For instance, if Obama wants to engage Iran, an implacable US foe, then the concern is that it is just a slippery slope until he nods at those saying Israel must engage Hamas. In the end, according to officials in Jerusalem, there is confidence that Obama will reach the same conclusions regarding Hamas, Hizbullah, Syria and Iran that Bush has: that it is futile to deal with them and they must be defeated, not engaged. But the concern is that the learning curve is steep, and it may take Obama a couple of years to come to that realization - a couple of years during which the centrifuges in Iran will be spinning away. Change is good, but when Jerusalem looks at its relationship with Washington, the feeling is, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it," and the fear is that Obama, much more than McCain, will come into office with an unquenchable fix-it urge.