JERUSALEM (JTA)—Although Israeli officialdom is not commenting on the possibility of a Barack Obama presidency, in private some officials in Jerusalem are expressing mixed feelings about the prospect.
There are concerns in some government quarters that Obama (D-Ill.), the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, might be soft on Iran, pressure Israel to make concessions on the Palestinian track and even change the tenor of the strategic relationship between Israel and the United States.
Yet Foreign Ministry experts on U.S. foreign policy say no American president, Obama included, would adopt an overtly anti-Israeli posture.
There are hopes on Israel’s left wing that an Obama administration will be more hands-on in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, perhaps even pressing the parties into a mutually beneficial deal. By the same token, there are fears on the right wing that an Obama administration and the Israeli government could be on a collision course, especially if the Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu wins the next Israeli election.
Obama’s powerfully expressed commitment to Israel at the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference in Washington on last week went a long way toward assuaging Israeli fears.
Israeli officials noted Obama’s readiness to use force against Iran if necessary, his promise to maintain the IDF’s qualitative edge, his support for isolating Hamas and his commitment to Israel’s Jewish character, with Jerusalem as its undivided capital.
Just before the big simcha at American University where Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass) anointed Sen. Baruch Obama as JFK’s successor, Obama was on a 23-minute conference call with members of the Jewish press.
The phone call was yet another attempt to stop the lashon hara about Obama’s religion, honesty and pro-Israel record—lies and slander circulating in some Jewish communities on and off line.
The news of this call was eclipsed by the Kennedy blessing. On any other news day, Obama’s outreach to Jews would have been a headline story.
I grabbed the MP3 of the conference call from our friends at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency so we could serve the audio locally, and save the JTA some bandwidth, and here it is:
Click here for the phone call. It’s 5MB +/-, 23 minutes, in MP3 format.
But the officials also offered two caveats. Although Obama is saying all the right things, there is no way of knowing what he would actually do in office, they noted. Unlike his Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Obama cannot boast a long, unwavering record of support for Israel. Second, some pundits argued that his commitment to a united Jerusalem was so obviously over the top that it cast doubt on the rest of what he had to say.
Following harsh Palestinian reaction to his comments on Jerusalem, Obama later clarified his remarks, telling CNN that the fate of the city would be up to Israel and the Palestinians to discuss.
The main worry in Israel is over Obama’s readiness to talk to Iran. Israeli officials and pundits are concerned that the Iranians will play the Americans for suckers, building nuclear weapons under the cloak of ongoing negotiations.
In late May, the Foreign Ministry’s research department convened a meeting of ministry and outside experts to discuss “American foreign policy after Bush,” including the possible implications of an Obama presidency. The conclusion: Israel has no reason to worry, no matter who wins the White House.
The consensus was that because support for Israel is so strong in both Congress and American public opinion, no president would take a radically different tack.
They also said pressure on Israel is unlikely since the main focus in the Middle East for the new U.S. president will be Iraq and Iran, not Israel and the Palestinians.
On Iran, any U.S. administration will try diplomacy before using force, the experts agreed, including McCain. The experts also saw merit in Obama’s argument that if the United States negotiates with Iran in good faith and fails, it would then have far more moral justification if and when it resorts to force to destroy Iranian nuclear installations.
“I don’t think diplomacy and even direct negotiations are necessarily a sign of being soft,” one of the experts, Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli consul general in New York, told JTA. “I think it’s an avenue that if successful could be beneficial to Israel, especially since he’s not taking the military option off the table. I am not sure the Rambo—Let’s bomb them back into the Stone Age—is necessarily a better policy.”
Pinkas noted two more reasons why Israel has nothing to fear from Obama. One, after the staunchly pro-Israel Clinton and Bush administrations, the classic conflict between pro-Israeli and more “even-handed” American policy is a thing of the past, he said. Two, Obama almost certainly will appoint an overwhelmingly pro-Israel Cabinet, he said.
“I just cannot see Obama deviating from that general pro-Israeli position,” Pinkas said.
Where Pinkas does see a possible change in U.S. policy under Obama is on the Israeli-Syrian peace track. Here, an Obama administration might make the Syrians an offer they can’t refuse, coaxing them to leave the Iranian axis and join the moderate pro-Western Arab coalition.
“If this is part of a grand U.S. strategy to isolate Iran, then it could be very much in Israel’s interest,” Pinkas said.
On the Israeli right, however, suspicion of Obama remains strong. Likud hawks are still seething over remarks Obama made to a group of Jewish leaders in Cleveland in March: “I think there is a strain within the pro-Israel community that says unless you adopt an unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel, then you’re anti-Israel, and that can’t be the measure of our friendship with Israel,” Obama said.
Excerpts from Barack Obama’s meeting at an Ohio Jewish Community Center on February 24, 2008. (Official campaign video.)
Likudniks recall the severe strains in relations between Israel and the Clinton administration when Netanyahu was prime minister, over Netanyahu’s refusal to make concessions to the Palestinians. They fear Netanyahu and Obama could be on the same kind of collision course with worse consequences, especially if it turns out that Obama does not share Clinton’s profound commitment to Israel.
Pinkas points out that the Clinton-Netanyahu tension owed to Netanyahu’s allying with the Republican House speaker, Newt Gingrich, against the administration. This time Netanyahu has not made the same mistake, having taken pains to establish good relations with Obama.
Perhaps more than anything else, the question of how the next U.S. president will relate toward Israel may rest on another as-yet-unknowable factor: who will be Israel’s next prime minister.