In Washington: No point pandering to Israel

The minority of Jews who won't vote for Obama won't change their minds.

mjrosenberg88 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Sen. Barack Obama's decision to include Israel in his overseas tour makes a lot of sense. Although he has been there before, the ever-changing Israeli scene needs to be experienced firsthand. I only hope Obama is not going to Israel to impress a small but vocal minority of Jewish Democrats who are uncomfortable with his candidacy. I say that because, from what I have heard from those voters, there is nothing Obama can say or do that will bring them around. They do not trust him, not because of what he says but because of who he is. They suspect that, no matter what he says, his sympathies in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are not limited to Israelis but also extend to Palestinians. After all, how can an African American whose father's people were African Muslims not have sympathy for Palestinians as well as for Jews? These people believe the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a zero-sum game. They cannot imagine the possibility that anyone can have sympathy for both peoples. They also doubt the fundamental justice of Israel's case. They believe anyone who approaches it with any sort of openness will come down on the anti-Israel side. That is why they demand that candidates recite lobbyists' talking points. That is why they do not want candidates, or anyone really, to think about the issue. In Obama, they see someone who thinks. And even though his lifetime record demonstrates strong support for Israel coupled with the understanding that its security depends on security for the Palestinians, they are skeptical. Or they say they are. Anyone who doubts that the Israel issue in this campaign is utterly manufactured should take note of Sen. Joseph Lieberman's statement this week. Asked why he keeps hitting Obama on the Israel issue, he said: "I've concluded that John McCain is best for our country, then why wouldn't I do that?" In other words, because he prefers McCain to Obama, why shouldn't he use Israel as an issue against Obama whether warranted or not. The people uncomfortable with Obama are the same people who believe that George W. Bush was the best president for Israel in its history, overlooking the fact that these have been the worst eight years in Israel's history. The Iraq War alone, a misadventure from the get-go, has done more strategic damage to Israel than any action by any president since 1948. It all comes down to what one considers pro-Israel. Is it rhetorical support for every action Israel takes or is it helping Israel achieve peace? Here's hoping that Obama and McCain are in the latter category. Israel cannot take another four years like the last eight. Neither can the United States, which has seen its standing in the Middle East (and throughout the world) suffer not only as a result of the Iraq War but also because we have abandoned the role of honest broker. AS I said, I hope that Obama is not visiting Israel to impress people who won't support him anyway. I hope he is going to demonstrate to Israelis and Palestinians that an Obama administration would turn a new page by engaging in diplomacy to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict starting in its first year. I hope he will meet with both Israelis and Palestinians, and not limit himself to the Israeli side of the Green Line. He should meet with the people of Sderot and with the people of Ramallah. If he visits Jewish west Jerusalem, he should visit Palestinian east Jerusalem. Perhaps he can hold a town meeting with Israeli and Palestinian youth. Together. And he needs to have one message for both peoples. He should say: "If I am elected president, I will do everything in my power to bring about negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians with the goal of achieving peace and security for Israel and a secure state for the Palestinians." He should not get into specifics. It is the job of the United States to facilitate negotiations between the parties. It is not to delineate borders, draw maps of Jerusalem, determine how many Palestinians can return or decide which settlements can stay and which must go. It is simply to put the weight of the United States behind negotiations and then do what it can to ensure that both sides live up to the terms of any agreement that is reached. It is also to recognize that security for one side cannot come at the expense of the other. Security for Israel requires security for Palestinians. There is no necessity for Obama to get into the details because there already is a perfectly serviceable agreement gathering dust on the shelf. It is the Clinton parameters which former president Bill Clinton outlined in a speech before Israel Policy Forum just before leaving office in January 2001. During the last eight years it was considered bad form to speak with enthusiasm about how close Clinton came to achieving Israeli-Palestinian peace. The Camp David summit in the summer of 2000 was a disaster (the Yasser Arafat/Ehud Barak duo was less interested in peace than in saving their respective careers), but at Taba in January 2001 the two sides came closer to a final status agreement than ever before. The next president needs to build on what Clinton accomplished, rather than rush from his legacy out of partisan resentment. One thing we do not need from Obama in Israel is the full-court pander. As I said, the Jewish Democrats who do not like him are not going to change their minds. As for the Republicans, obviously they will go for McCain because they are Republicans and prefer the Republican approach to a whole host of issues. Some 25 to 30 percent of American Jews are Republicans, but only a tiny fraction of that group are Republican because of Israel. Jewish Republicans, like the vast majority of Jewish Democrats, support their respective candidate based on the whole gamut of issues that affect us as Americans. Israel is just one of them. That means that Obama - like John Kerry, Al Gore and Clinton - is going to receive at least 70% of the Jewish vote simply because Jews (next to African Americans) are the most reliably liberal segment of the electorate. Jewish voters are also the most consistently pro-civil rights, pro-choice and anti-Iraq War voters. Younger Jews, in particularly, are wildly enthusiastic about Obama. (The numbers I refer to are from a host of polls.) So who exactly will Obama pick up by pandering in Israel? I would say nobody. Those Jewish voters who do not want to vote for an African American or who want a president who will defend the occupation and the status quo are not going to vote for him. Period. Nor will the group that is hell-bent on war with Iran. Fortunately for Obama, these people amount to a very few. There is a far larger group of Jews and non-Jews that can potentially be turned off if Obama goes to Israel and reads lobbyists' talking points. The secret of Obama's success is that he is perceived as a break from the tired politics and policies of the past. Nothing is more tired than mouthing pieties about the Middle East. And it's not only Jews who will be paying attention. The days when a candidate could pander to some key voting bloc, safe in the assumption that his base wouldn't find out, is long over. Obama's base relies heavily on the Internet for its news (younger Americans in general get most of their information from news and opinion Web sites). And this "new media" almost universally rejects the belief that the best Middle East policy for America (and for Israel) is simply to endorse whatever the Israeli government does whenever it does it. It's a new day. Let's hope Obama's visit to Israel reflects it. The writer is director of Israel Policy Forum's Washington Policy Center.