Posted by: sean | February 28, 2008

Obama and Israel

I’ve been thinking about why I like Obama so much lately and why, for the first time in my life, I’m actually excited about a presidential candidate. One of the reasons is that Samantha Power, for whom I have enormous respect as a scholar of genocide, is part of his foreign policy team. Another reason is that, perhaps naively, I feel like Obama would do his best to push the US toward being a more even-handed moderator in the Middle East.

Here’s an excerpt from an event in Ohio where he talked to Cleveland’s Jewish community. There’s a lot of gentle reassuring about how he’s a friend to Israel and even some talk about keeping Israel a Jewish state and continuing to arm it, two things that I disagree with vehemently. There are a lot of fundamental points in his position that I don’t agree with, but these days it’s hard to find anyone, much less a serious contender for the White House, who agrees with me on the one-state solution. Obama’s views on Israel seem to me to be the least insane of all the candidates — and even borderline reasonable. It’s important to me that he has the balls to say, publicly and in front of a Jewish audience no less, that there’s a difference between being a friend to Israel and toeing the Likud line:

OBAMA: There is a spectrum of views in terms of how the US and Israel should be interacting. It has evolved over time. It means that somebody like Brzezinski who, when he was national security advisor would be considered not outside of the mainstream in terms of his perspective on these issues, is now considered by many in the Jewish Community anathema. I know Brzezinski he’s not one of my key advisors. I’ve had lunch with him once, I’ve exchanged emails with him maybe 3 times. He came to Iowa to introduce for a speech on Iraq. He and I agree that Iraq was an enormous strategic blunder and that input from him has been useful in assessing Iraq, as well as Pakistan, where actually, traditionally, if you will recall he was considered a hawk. The liberal wing of the Democratic Party was very suspicious of Brzezinski precisely because he was so tough on many of these issues. I do not share his views with respect to Israel. I have said so clearly and unequivocally. The others that you refer to are former members of the Clinton administration. Somebody like a Tony Lake, the former National Security Adviser, or Susan Rice – these are not anti-Israel individuals. These are people who strongly believe in Israel’s right to exist. Strongly believe in a two state solution. Strongly believe that the Palestinians have been irresponsible and have been strongly critical of them. Share my view that Israel has to remain a Jewish state, that the US has a special relationship with the Jewish state. There’s no inkling that there has been anything in anything that they’ve written that would suggest they’re not stalwart friends of Israel.

This is where I get to be honest and I hope I’m not out of school here. I think there is a strain within the pro-Israel community that says unless you adopt a unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel that you’re anti-Israel and that can’t be the measure of our friendship with Israel. If we cannot have a honest dialogue about how do we achieve these goals, then we’re not going to make progress. And frankly some of the commentary that I’ve seen which suggests guilt by association or the notion that unless we are never ever going to ask any difficult questions about how we move peace forward or secure Israel that is non military or non belligerent or doesn’t talk about just crushing the opposition that that somehow is being soft or anti-Israel, I think we’re going to have problems moving forward. And that I think is something we have to have an honest dialogue about. None of these emails talk about the fact that on the other side, members of my national finance committee, like Lester Crown, are considered about has hawkish and tough when it comes to Israel as anybody in the country. So, there’s got to be some balance here. I’ve got a range of perspectives and a range of advisors who approach this issue. They would all be considered well within the mainstream of that bipartisan consensus that I raised or that we talked about in terms of being pro-Israel. There’s never been any of my advisors who questioned the need for us to provide Israel with security, with military aid, with economic aid. That there has to be a two state solution, that Israel has to remain a Jewish state. None of my advisors would suggest that, so I think its important to keep some of these things in perspective. I understand people’s concern with Brzezinski given how much offense the Israeli lobby raised, but he’s not one of my central advisors. There is an article in Newsweek, not to make this overly political, this issue that shows that there has been a fairly systemic effort on the part of some of my opponent’s supporters, I wont say it was sanctioned from the top, to constantly feed this suspicion, and I want people to take my words and my track record of years on this issue to heart. I got to admit this one is a plan.

As for Clinton, Tony Karon brings up an interesting, and depressing, comment by someone in the Clinton campaign:

I love this line from one of Hillary’s campaign organizers in response to Obama being quoted as saying he wanted “an honest discussion about ways to bridge the gap that grows between Muslims and the West” — Daphna Ziman, a friend of Clinton’s who has organized campaign events for her, responded, “I am horrified at Mr. Obama’s point of view.” Enough said.

I don’t think that things are going to magically become hunky dory between the US and the Middle East if Obama is elected president, but I feel that they’ll get significantly better. I’m unsure, however, of how much of that is tied to the idea that in these dark times it’s hard to imagine how things could get much worse (but they can always get worse).

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