Shmuel Rosner Chief U.S. Correspondent www.haaretz.com/rosner
Obama will soon make the case that he'll be as strong on Israel as anyoneMy weekend column for the Hebrew print edition is a lengthy piece on U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Illinois). Most Israelis don't know him, and my editors thought he was enough of a political phenomenon to make him worth writing about, even at this early stage of the campaign. Most of the piece was not translated into English, as much of the material in it will not be of any value to American readers who have gotten more than their fair share of Obamania in the last couple of months. The only part of it that's worth presenting here is the section on Obama and Israel. (You can read a news story on Obama's comments about Israel here.)
I've written about Obama and Israel before, in the context of The Israel Factor project. My goal at the time was to try to explain why this bright, charismatic, viable candidate was not getting high marks from our Israel Factor panelists: What is it about Obama that makes them uncomfortable about his possible future attitude toward Israel?
If you don't know someone, then you don't trust him. And "if you don't trust someone, you try to be careful with him," one panelist told me. It's "the unknown factor," another one explained. "What kind of constituency does he bring with him, and how will they influence his positions?"
"We need more time to trust him," a panelist told me. "Voting for Israel a couple of times doesn't constitute enough of a track record on which to make a more favorable judgment." Nathan Diament of the Orthodox Union, who knows Obama from their days at Harvard, made a similar argument this week in his blog: The short political life of Obama hasn't "provide[d] many opportunities for a new politician to establish the kind of record that longer-serving officeholders have built up over time."
Obama has not been deaf to such suspicions. And now that he is not just a "possible candidate" but an officially declared one, he will try to fix these perceptions. "Israelis want more than anything to live in peace with their neighbors, but Israel also has real - and very dangerous - enemies," were Obama's words to Haaretz. "My view is that the United States' special relationship with Israel obligates us to be helpful to them in the search for credible partners with whom they can make peace, while also supporting Israel in defending itself against enemies sworn to its destruction."
In my 60-minute interview with him last week, Obama was not shy about explaining why a viable peace has not yet been achieved. Like all the other major Democratic candidates, he will be a strong advocate for American involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Nonetheless, he said he is yet to see - "particularly in the Palestinian community - "leaders who have both the will and the capacity to renounce violence as a strategy to resolve the problems and to actually enforce any agreement that might be reached with the Israelis." Talking about the current prospects for an agreement, Obama said that under the existing conditions, "I think we're not going to see much progress."
But this is just the short version of the policy Obama will be officially presenting soon. This week I was told that while the venue has yet to be selected, the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs conference in Washington at the end of February is one possibility. There's also a chance that he will make his comments on Israel at a Washington rally calling for the release of the abducted Israeli soldiers or while speaking to a group of Chicago Jews. One thing is quite clear: It will happen in the next two to three weeks.
I asked about the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) convention in March and was told that he will speak there too, but wants to have another speech sooner. Obama doesn't want to wait such a long time - not when he is running a campaign in which he will need the support of many people who care deeply about Israel. (Oh, let's just say it: Jewish voters are major donors to the Democratic Party and its nominees.) He also wants to make sure that people will hear him, and him alone. After all, Obama will not be the only candidate speaking and getting attention at the AIPAC conference.
On Capitol Hill on Wednesday, Dan Shapiro, a senior adviser to Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Florida), was saying goodbye to the job he has held for six years. He is as knowledgeable as anyone on Israel and the Middle East, and apart from the "real" job he got himself now, he has joined Obama's campaign as an adviser on issues related to Mideast policy.
I spoke to Shapiro about Obama and his views earlier this week, and I asked him to highlight for me the differences between Obama and the current Bush policy regarding Israel. The first difference, he said, will be a greater emphasis on the need for constant engagement by the U.S. Obama will tell you that Bush wasted some long years without investing in diplomacy. You can either agree with him on that or not, but this has become the Democratic party line. All candidates condemn Bush for the hands-off approach.
A second possible difference will involve the question of whether to talk to Syria. Obama believes that America should talk to the Assad regime, so it's hard envisioning him objecting to an Israeli-Syrian dialogue. And then there's the question of Iran - the most important of them all.
A Washingtonian familiar with the Obama campaign reminded me that Obama is the anti-war candidate, and thus will have some maneuvering to do on Iran. He will probably warn of a possible deterioration in relations that could lead to an unintentional war, but by the same token he can also be expected to agree that Iran should not be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons and that no U.S. president should take any of the options off the table.
This will be a position similar to those of other Democratic candidates. Some might say that it's a problematic position when it comes to the real world - what if talks with Tehran do not provide an agreement that can actually prevent a nuclear Iran - but nevertheless, it's a good one politically. It sounds anti-war enough for the Democratic Party at large, and anti-Iran enough for those who really understand the significance of the issue at hand.
All these policy points will not even wait for the promised speech. A position paper outlining Obama's views is in the making, and will be distributed to as many Jewish voters as possible.
Will he be able to win over these voters?
After talking to people about him all week, I can tell you this: They very much want to be persuaded that Obama should win their backing, as they all understand the excitement and enthusiasm surrounding his candidacy and the importance of Obama's adding his voice to the camp of Israel supporters.
With such an attitude, it is relatively easy to be convinced.
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