Obama: Still Not Ready for Prime Time
On the eve of Senator Barack Obama’s visit last week to Israel, Yossi Klein Halevi penned a gem of an essay in The New Republic in the form of an open letter to the Democratic presidential candidate. Halevi began by assuring Obama that Israelis have paid little attention to such diversions as his middle name (Hussein), his early years spent in Indonesia being raised by a Moslem step-father, or any of the other topics so beloved by viral e-mailers. Nor does Barack’s color evoke any concern in a country that “rescued tens of thousands of African Jews and turned their arrival into a national celebration.”
Halevi did not even mention Obama’s former spiritual mentor pastor Jeremiah Wright. He was writing as a citizen of Israel, and the question of Obama’s views on America are of necessity of far less moment to Israelis than they are to American. The former are far more interested in knowing Senator Obama’s views on Israel.
Here too Halevi was quick to assure Obama that few in Israel doubt his friendship: “Your description of Israeli security as ‘sacrosanct’ and your passionate endorsement of Israel’s cause at the annual AIPAC conference in Washington were greeted with banner headlines in the Israeli press.”
But precisely because Israelis do not suspect Obama of harboring any ill-will towards them were they hoping for something more from him than professions of friendship and sympathy for the people of Sderot. Above all, they want some indication that Obama understands their predicament.
Here too Halevi was forthright: [A]s much as Israelis want to embrace you, there is anxiety about your candidacy. . . . Israelis worry that, as president, you might act too hastily in trying to solve the Palestinian problem, and not hastily enough in trying to solve the Iranian problem.”
In truth, Obama’s visit to Israel had less to do with allaying the fears of Israelis – few of whom will vote in the American presidential election – and more to do with providing American Jews the fig leaf they need to vote for Obama. And for that purpose the photo-ops in Sderot, Yad Vashem, and at the Kotel were all that was required. General professions of support for Israel’s right to exist and an aye vote on the annual appropriations have long been the only thing most American Jews require to drape upon a Democratic candidate the mantle pro-Israel.
ISRAELIS, however, were far less likely to be reassured by Senator Obama’s statements in Israel on precisely the two issues pointed to by Halevi: negotiations with the Palestinians and Iran. Senator Obama announced that he will make the resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict a high priority from day one of his administration.
That is bad news indeed for Israel. For one thing, it indicates that he believes there is a ready solution to the conflict. No president knowingly makes something a priority item unless he views success as likely. And if Obama thinks there is a ready solution to the conflict that can only come in one form: Israel’s return to the ’67 borders. For once Prime Minister Olmert got it right last week when he said that even Israel’s best friends, when they envision Israel’s eventual contours, think “in terms of the ’67 borders.”
Obama basically confirmed that last week. Asked by Jerusalem Post editor David Horowitz about Prime Minister Olmert’s description of the great achievement of the Bush administration as its recognition that realities on the ground make a return to the ’67 borders impossible, Barack acknowledged that Israel might justify “’67 plus” in terms of the need for a security buffer, “but they’ve got to consider whether getting that buffer is worth the antagonism of the other party.”
In those words, lies the implicit assumption that the crux of the issue is Israeli settlements on territory seized in 1967 and the antagonism they engender, not the refusal of the Palestinians to accept the existence of Israel in any borders. Consider, however, the results of a June 5-7 poll by the Palestinian enter for Policy and Survey Research. In response to a question whether reconciliation between Palestinians and Israelis would be possible after the conclusion of a peace agreement and the establishment of a Palestinian state, a plurality of Palestinians (43%) answered that reconciliation is impossible ever; 20.5% that it is only possible in many generations; and 12.4% that it is only possible in the next generation.
Nor does there seem to be any more acceptance of Israel among the senior political echelons with whom Israel is supposed to conclude some kind of peace treaty. Last week, the PA sent its warmest congratulations to child_murderer Samir Kuntar on his release from an Israeli jail and announced plans for festive celebrations in honor of Dalal Mughrabi, the mastermind of the Coastal Road massacre in which 37 Israelis were murdered. Those gestures make it difficult to understand how Obama could credit Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salaam Fayd with doing everything possible “to address some of the systemic failures of the Palestinian Authority,” (unless ceaseless incitement against Israel is not one of those systemic failures in his eyes.)
In sum, it seems likely that an Obama administration will push Israel to withdraw from Judea and Samaria, just as it did from Southern Lebanon and Gaza, without retaining any security buffers lest it incur Palestinian antagonism. That is pretty close to Einstein’s definition of insanity – the repetition of the same action with the expectation of different results.
A SECOND IMPLICIT assumption behind Senator Obama’s promise to commence his efforts at Mideast peacemaking from day one is that the Palestinian-Israel conflict lies at the heart of the region’s problems. Otherwise why make its resolution such a high priority. In an interview with Atlantic, Obama characterized the Palestinian-Israel conflict as “constant sore” that “infect[s] all of our foreign policy” and “provides an excuse for anti-American militant jihadists.” It is not altogether clear why anti-American jihadists need an “excuse.” The Ayatollah Khomeini did not hesitate to call America “the Great Satan” and Israel “the Little Satan.” In his view, Israel was an American outpost, not vice versa.
Obama’s view of the centrality of the Palestinian-Israel conflict is consistent with his choice of foreign policy advisors. One of those advisors is former Congressman Lee Hamilton, co-chairman, along with James Baker, of the Iraq Study Group, which described the Arab-Israeli conflict as the crux of Middle East instability, and recommended dramatic Israeli concessions as the cure. Other advisors, like Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter’s National Security advisor, are even more hostile. Brzezinski is one of the few academic defenders of John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt’s “The Israel Lobby,” and shares those authors’ view that Israel is a strategic liability to the United States.
The view that the Palestinian-Israel conflict is at the heart of all that ails the Middle East cannot bear scrutiny. Most of the major conflicts in the region: the Iraq-Iran war, the first Iraq War; civil wars in Lebanon; Sunni-Shiite tensions throughout the region; the Syrian killing of over 20,000 of its own citizens in a few days in Homa have absolutely nothing to do with Israel. Despite its vast oil wealth, the region continues to rank at the bottom or near it on the Freedom Index, literacy, empowerment of women, and other indicia of development. Again, these failures have nothing to do with Israel.
Obama’s downplaying of the dysfunctions of the Arab world is of a piece with his refusal to see the West as at war with militant Islam. He continues to view defending against terrorism from a criminal law perspective rather than as a war on a highly ideological, albeit amorphous, enemy. In a study prepared for the Journal of International Security Studies comparing the foreign policy positions of John McCain to those of Barack Obama, Michael Oren concluded that Obama still perceives terrorism in terms as criminal acts to be tried after the fact by court. Thus he points to the trial of the first World Trade Center bombers as proof of the strength of our criminal justice system.
The problem with that approach is that criminal trials, such as those of the first World Trade Center bombers, always come too late.. The Clinton administration’s approach to terrorism of rounding up a few bad guys and putting them on trial led straight to 9/11.
While in Israel, Obama told David Horowitz of The Jerusalem Post that the number of Moslems who embrace the ideology of jihad is relatively small. But given the number of suicide bombers various Islamic groups have been able to attract, and the euphoric reaction to 9/11 throughout the Arab world, including in the Palestinian Authority, that conclusion seems doubtful.
Obama’s de-emphasis of the ideological/theological nature of the enemy helps explain both his total failure to understand the costs of a precipitous American retreat from Iraq or the threat from a nuclear Iran. Even today, after the evident success of the surge, Obama continues to stubbornly insist that it was not worth the effort. Because of his deafness to theology/ideology he cannot comprehend how America fleeing Iraq would add another new chapter to the jihadist narrative of Islam ascendant, which begins with the expulsion of the Russians from Afghanistan in 1979. A defeated America would have emboldened Iran and attracted thousands of Moslems around the world to the jihadi banner.
His claim that he wants to cut troop levels in Iraq in order to increase them in Afghanistan is profoundly unserious – the Democratic base that nominated Obama opposes all military endeavors, not just the war in Iraq. Talk about more troops in Afghanistan is nothing more than an effort to burnish his tough-guy credentials, just like the recent claim that he would not take the military option off the table versus Iran. And it would be ludicrous if Obama were serious about switching America’s military focus from Iraq – a country of huge strategic importance because of its large oil reserves and proximity to Iran and the Gulf – to Afghanistan, which is of no such importance.
Initially, Obama rated Iran as no more a serious threat to the United States than Cuba or Venezuela. When the discredited National Intelligence Estimate concluded that Iran had suspended its covert nuclear program, Obama hailed the finding and condemned the Bush adminstration’s sabre-rattling. Yet even a cursory reading of the NIE report itself failed to support its authors’ summary conclusion (which they too have now repudiated.). The Iranians had, at most, only suspended certain covert work on weaponization, even as they continued to openly pursue uranium enrichment, the major hurdle to producing a nuclear warhead.
Of late, Obama has hardened his rhetoric about Iran, but still insists that the Iranians “must be given an opportunity to change” before any military action against Iranian nuclear sites would be justified. But by the time a new Obama administration would be ready for negotiations, the Iranians would likely have completed their acquisition of nuclear weapons.
In his demand for open negotiations with the Iranians, Obama seems blissfully unaware that such negotiations have been going on for five years between the Europeans and Iran, and all they have achieved has been to bring Iran to the doorstep of acquiring nuclear weapons without any serious Western response. At the very least, Obama should explain why he hopes to succeed where the Europeans failed: Does he have a tastier carrot to offer or a bigger stick to wield?
In short, the likelihood of Obama doing anything to stop the Iranian nuclear program, or countenancing an Israeli attempt to do so, remain low. And where does that leave Israelis? Still afraid that a President Obama would push too early for agreement on a Palestinian state and too late to do anything to prevent Iran from attacking Israel. Just as he found us.
This article appeared in the Yated Ne’eman on July 30, 2008