Trust Obama on Israel

He understands no one knows whether Palestinians really ready for peace.

us special 2 224 (photo credit: )
us special 2 224
(photo credit: )
Florida, of course, was a different story, but back in Iowa there was no need for Barack Obama or any other candidate to worry about the Jewish vote. There are 7,000 Jews in the entire state, including 100 hassidim, who work a kosher meat-packing plant in Pottsville. Yet speaking in Des Moines on December 18, Obama cut to the essence of the Middle East problem at a level of sophistication that ought to be a relief, if not a rebuke, to those who fret about his lack of foreign policy "experience." Obama raised three questions and answered them in a way that no other Democratic aspirant for the nomination has done. First: Is Israel truly ready to make the concessions necessary to guarantee that a Palestinian state will be more than a "Potemkin village" - a facade without depth or substance? "I'm confident," Obama said, "that Israel is ready and willing to make some of these concessions if they have the confidence that the Palestinians can enforce an agreement." This is exactly right. And it is a sign that President Obama would not pressure only one side (Israel) because the other side (the Palestinians) are immune to American pressure. On his way out the door in 2000, President Clinton actually had a map color-coding the Old City of Jerusalem: Israeli sovereignty on this street, Palestinian sovereignty on that, like the delirious maps drawn in London and Paris back in the early 20th century that burden the Middle East and Africa to this day. Clinton coerced Ehud Barak, then prime minister of Israel, to accept his map and make other concessions. He got nothing out of the Palestinians. Yet even the most moderate Palestinians now assume that future discussions will start where Clinton left off. It is good to know that Obama understands why that won't work. THE SECOND question is whether any agreement negotiated with Palestinian leaders can be enforced on the Palestinian people. Most Israelis are ready to make a deal and abide by it. There is no such disposition among Palestinians. Hamas, the party that won the most recent Palestinian elections and that already rules in Gaza, explicitly rejects any deal with Israel. So what do you do? Obama's answer, and the right one: You deal with the official Palestinian leadership, which is willing to deal, but you pressure it to take action on other fronts that will bring the people back from Hamas. We "have to make sure that Abbas and Fayad and those that are controlling the West Bank still actually start delivering something tangible that is benefiting the lives of Palestinians in the West Bank, that they are ridding [their party] Fatah of the corruption that has been endemic, and are put in a stronger position politically so Hamas is not dictating the terms of Palestinian negotiations but the moderates in the Palestinian camp are dictating what the Palestinian people are willing to go along with." Third, is this an opportunity to watch democracy flower in the Middle East, as George W. Bush has dreamed? Well maybe, in 1,000 years or so. Meanwhile, Obama grasps that any accord will require strong leadership and even some "dictating" to the moderates. This is not callous. It is realistic. But only if the Palestinian leadership realizes that "now is the time for them to step out of the ideological blind alley that they've been in for so long." The Israelis have stepped out of their own blind alley of small settlements and lonely outposts planted in densely populated Palestinian areas. Everyone knows how very much actual land Israel will give up so that Palestine can be Palestine. No one yet knows whether the Palestinians are ready to let Israel be Israel. OBAMA'S POINTS, which he has made many times, should reassure anyone who is concerned about what his presidency would mean for the security of Israel. And yet many are not reassured. They are alarmed by emails saying that Obama's middle name is Hussein (true, and so what?), that he is a Muslim and not a Christian (untrue, and so what if it were true?), that he took the oath of office as a senator on the Koran rather than the Bible (utterly untrue and, once again, so what?). All these charges have been aired and negated often enough that anyone interested in hearing the truth about them has heard it. But another charge, circulating on the Internet, has not yet been sufficiently refuted. This is that Obama has advisers on the Middle East who despise Israel. Let's take one example. There are all kinds of spooky rumors that a man named Robert Malley advises Obama on the Middle East. His name comes up mysteriously and intrusively on the Web, like the ads for Viagra. Malley, who has written several deceitful articles in the New York Review of Books, is anti-Israel. No question about it. But Malley is not and has never been Middle East adviser to Barack Obama. Obama's Middle East adviser is Dan Shapiro. Malley did, though, work for Bill Clinton. He was deeply involved in the disastrous diplomacy of 2000. Obama at the time was in the Illinois State Senate. So, yes, this is a piece of experience that Obama lacks. The writer is editor-in-chief of The New Republic.