An Israeli Looks at Obama

A neighbor in Jerusalem asked me to write to his American father-in-law, who has been showering him with emails attacking Barack Obama. At a local bakery, the owner suggested in a whisper that I might talk sense to the tourist proclaiming in a New York accent, between sips of strong Israeli latte, that she was voting for John McCain. Old friends in California worry to me that elderly Jews in Miami think that McCain is better for Israel. "Remember 2000," they tell me darkly. Every vote counts.

I suspect that something even more emotionally powerful than electoral math is at stake. My friends are frightened of the shame of a mother or uncle staining the family, or the tribe, with the wrong vote -- a vote purportedly cast out of concern for Israel. From where I sit, this would be a shame, because the reasons Obama is better for Israel's security are the same reasons he is better for American security.

Start with McCain's claim to greater foreign-policy experience. Despite that experience, he supported invading Iraq. Obama, of course, opposed it. Conventional wisdom notwithstanding, the war has had strongly negative consequences for Israel.

As a result of the first Gulf War in the 1990s, "Iraq wasn't a serious threat to Israel," explains researcher Shlomo Brom of Tel Aviv University's Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, formerly head of strategic planning in the Israeli Army's general staff. On the other hand, Brom says, the second Gulf War has deeply damaged America's stature in the Middle East, and "Israel, which is seen as being under American protection, is weakened as a result." Moreover, by eliminating Iraq as a counterbalance, the war freed Iran from containment. From Israel's perspective, the regional balance of forces has become much worse. Was this predictable? Yes, actually. Before the invasion in 2003, Israeli officials and experts warned Iran was a more significant threat than Iraq.

Looking forward, "it's preferable for Israel if the United State pulls out" of Iraq, Brom says. The occupation continues to tie down and weaken American militarily, in turn hurting its allies. Obama's insistence on setting a timetable for leaving once again serves Israeli as well as American interests.

In light of McCain's position on Iraq, his confusion between Sunni and Shi'ite is much more than a gaffe; it's a worldview. Back in March, you'll remember, candidate McCain sought to show off his foreign policy expertise with a visit to the Middle East. At a press conference in Amman, he asserted that it's "common knowledge … that al-Qaeda is going back into Iran and receiving training and are coming back into Iraq from Iran." Only after a whispered word from traveling companion Joe Lieberman did McCain half-correct himself, saying that "the Iranians are training extremists, not al-Qaeda." The comments revealed an inability to distinguish between the Middle East's opposing factions, as well as a lack of concern with national rivalries and ideological enmities. It's the same attitude that has made the Bush administration's policies in the region so clumsy and dangerous for American allies.

Besides Iraq, a key example of that clumsiness has been the current administration's stonewalling of Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations. Turkish-mediated contacts between Jerusalem and Damascus have been underway since last year, but the United States has refused to join the process. According to Alon Liel, former director-general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, Washington's attitude is what has prevented an agreement. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has "made a strategic decision" that his country's future "is tied to the West, not Iran," Liel says. Peace with Israel would be the means by which Syria would realign itself. Iran would lose a key ally, as would Hamas and Hezbollah.

Liel, who carried on back-channel contacts with Syria that preceded the official negotiations, says the administration's refusal to join the process is based on "black and white vision" -- since Syria is one of the bad guys, there's no point in talking to it. He rates the chances of change in attitude, and of a peace deal that would significantly alter the regional map in Israel's favor, as high if Obama becomes president.

Isolating Tehran, however, is not enough to relieve Israel's greatest anxiety -- the possibility that Iran will produce nuclear weapons. Speaking off the record, even Israeli experts speak positively of direct talks between the United States and Iran, as Obama has proposed. There's no reason not to try the diplomatic option. But the complement to diplomacy is much stronger international economic sanctions. To achieve such cooperation, Washington would have to end the unilateral, unipolar approach of the Bush years. Flaunting American muscle, however satisfying emotionally, is less effective than coalition-building. Such a shift is clearly more likely under Obama than McCain.

At first glance, the chances that the next president will devote energy to Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy early in his term are low. His first priority will be the economy. His Middle East concerns will lie in the belt from Iraq to Afghanistan.

But conflicts do not wait until leaders have time for them. The present calm in Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank is fragile. The real question is whether the president is able to devote attention to avoiding a new round of violence even while he deals with other priorities.

This is a character question. For an answer, look at how McCain and Obama dealt with the economic meltdown in late September. McCain wanted to call off campaigning and cancel a debate. Obama's response was, "It's going to be part of the president's job to deal with more than one thing at once."

Indeed, watching the election from a country dependent on American support, character may be the essential question. In the face of any crisis in the Middle East, is it better for Israel to look to a president who enjoys rolling dice, or to one dedicated to avoiding drama? What does it mean for American policy to be set by a president who, on a whim, bet not only his candidacy but his nation's future on a running mate he hadn't bothered to vet?

For that matter, how would a President Palin deal with an Iranian nuclear test, or even a sudden flare-up on the Israeli-Lebanese border?

I don't like thinking about such questions. I have enough reasons to be nervous, living where I do. What happens in Miami could make it easier for me to sleep at night.

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