Savir's Corner: Obama 2012

Every Israeli will admit that our national security and even economic well-being are highly dependent on our main ally – the United States.

Obama White House speech 311 (photo credit: REUTERS/Jim Watson/Pool)
Obama White House speech 311
(photo credit: REUTERS/Jim Watson/Pool)
It is not for an Israeli to intervene in American politics; thus that is not the purpose of this article. Yet every Israeli will admit that our national security and even economic well-being are highly dependent on our main ally – the United States of America.
Based on shared values and common strategic interests, this has been a strong alliance – a unique bridge that generally disregards partisan divides in both countries. Yet the quality of these critical relations depends very much on the person sitting in the White House as well as in the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem.
The election period in the United States has begun, and as always it affects policy-making in Washington. This comes at the beginning of a prolonged era of turmoil and shifting sands in the Middle East. Therefore who the leader of the free world will be after November 2012 is important to Israel and the region.
The dividing lines in the United States in ideology and policy seem clearer than ever. On one side, Barack Obama, the first African-American president, a liberal intellectual who took America by a storm of optimism, acting towards more government intervention in the economy and less intervention in the world while opening a new dialogue with the Muslim world.
On the other side, an ultra-conservative Republican Party, swept by a right-wing storm generated by the Tea Party movement, with candidates such as Mitt Romney, Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann, who espouse less taxes, a free market led by the champions of Wall Street, pro-life and anti-abortion, with little tolerance for minorities or immigrants.
As Israelis, we must put forward questions that relate to our interests:
• With which side of this equation do we share more common values?
• Who will support Israel on the international scene?
• Who will strengthen our national security? – Who can lead towards a viable peace process in our region?
• Who can assist the Middle East, in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, to steer closer to the West and stability?
• Who can contend better with the Iranian threat?
WHILE I have little doubt that the next president of the United States will be a staunch ally of Israel, I do think that there is an important difference between the reelection of Obama or a new Republican president. In the same manner as Americans preferred Yitzhak Rabin to Binyamin Netanyahu, according to their own interests, we have the right to look at our own interests in relation to the elections of November 2012.
With this in mind, I will attempt to answer the aforementioned questions:
• As far as common values are concerned, it is to some degree a bipartisan issue in the US, in terms of fundamental democratic values. Yet I admit to feeling closer, as Israel should, to the liberal, humanitarian and universal values of Barack Obama, than to the more conservative, often Evangelical values of today’s Republicans.
• As far as support for Israel in the international scene goes, I assume that the Republicans will back Israel more in its isolation, while Obama will support Israeli positions that will not isolate it, or the United States for that matter.
• In terms of our national security – this is the one issue that crosses all divides in Washington – both a Democratic president and a Republican would surely preserve Israel’s strategic advantage and its qualitative edge in our region.
• As far as a viable peace process goes, American presidents who facilitated peace breakthroughs in the region were generally Democrats, specifically Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. It is related to the fact that Democratic presidents are perceived by the Arab world as more honest brokers.
While Obama has yet to achieve such a breakthrough in the region, I believe that given his positions and vision, his chances to facilitate a peace process are better than those of his Republican opponents. A good president for peace is a good president for Israel.
• In terms of the wider region, Obama has maneuvered with relative success through the shifting sands of the Arab Spring – he stood by the Tahrir Square youth, by the Tunisian revolution, intervened with NATO in Libya and is imposing sanctions on Bashar Assad in Syria. Obama’s opening of a dialogue with the Muslim world since his Cairo speech of June 2009, is fully in Israel’s interest, as it may keep a large part of this world in the Western camp.
• The Iranian question is an all-important one. So far Obama has opted for the diplomatic route of sanctions, while not taking other alternatives off the table entirely. I believe that this is the route to go from Israel’s point of view, as a military strike on Iran might not necessarily prevent the nuclearization of Iran and would probably spark a regional non-conventional war, turning the Muslim and Arab world against the West and Israel for years to come. A more adventurous president coming from the interventionist American Right, could be more pro-Israel, and at the same time potentially more dangerous for Israel’s future. The Iranian nuclear threat has to be contended with by a united international community exerting heavy pressure on Iran, threatening it, engaging it. Obama may be capable of this.
SO MY analysis leads to a clear conclusion in favor of Obama 2012, out of Israeli interests. Yet it is not enough to hope that the United States will rescue us or the peace process. It is also wrong to wait for the 2012 elections, although it seems as though our prime minister is hoping for a Republican victory, as he has also forged a bond with a Republican House of Representatives.
Even with the most pro-Israeli president in Washington, the responsibility still lies in Jerusalem, and Jerusalem must think and act in American pre-election terms and work with President Obama, first and foremost to create a regional and international coalition in favor of our interests vis-a-vis the region and Iran.
The way to such an alliance passes through a peace process with the Palestinians, providing Netanyahu can make the necessary difficult decisions to make a viable peace possible, i.e. accepting the 1967 borders as a basis for negotiations and announcing a settlement freeze. Once such a process is in place, we will be able to renew our relations with Egypt and Jordan, improve our relations with most of the region including Turkey, and strengthen our international standing, especially our relations with Washington.
The year remaining until the American election should be a year of promoting an Israeli-Palestinian peace process, of creating an international coalition in favor of it, also serving to contain Iran and strengthen Israel’s security. Then at the end of 2012, there will be room for the elected American president to intervene more strongly in favor of our interests, hopefully a second- term President Obama.
The writer is president of the Peres Center for Peace and served as Israel’s chief negotiator for the Oslo Accords.