Sen. Barack Obama is possibly the most charismatic US presidential candidate since John Kennedy. He is young, charming, passionate and extremely bright. He has overcome the barrier of racial bias and defeated a powerful adversary considered unbeatable. He is adored by many idealistic young people, who see in him a hope for a brighter future.
However, few would deny that there are highly questionable aspects to the Obama candidacy which electors will be mulling over between now and Election Day.
All candidates have been courting the small but highly influential Jewish electorate. As a consequence, Israel has attracted exorbitant media coverage.
Under normal circumstances, Jews would hardly support a candidate known to have been associated with a racist like the Rev. Jeremiah Wright of the Trinity United Church of Christ, who was until recently Obama’s family pastor and spiritual adviser. Over the years, Wright, a proponent of “black power,” promoted hatred and xenophobia. He blamed Israel for 9/11, which he described as a “wake-up call for white America;” he had close ties with Louis Farrakhan, the notorious anti-Semite and head of the Nation of Islam, with whom he traveled to Libya to meet Muammar Gaddafi; he promoted Hamas propaganda in his church; he continually raved about whites and cursed America.
Had Obama been a conservative, American Jews would unquestionably be at the forefront of initiatives to disqualify him for having been associated with such a bigot.
However, even more disconcerting than Obama’s relationship with the racist pastor is the political stance of his friends and advisers in relation to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Robert Malley, until very recently one of Obama’s advisers, was closely associated with the anti-Israeli billionaire George Soros, notorious for his bitter hostility against Israel. Samantha Power, another policy adviser who also recently “resigned,” previously called on the US to defend Palestinians from Israeli “genocide.” Tony McPeak, Obama’s campaign co-chair, complained about foreign policy being unduly influenced from “Miami and New York.” Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter’s former national security adviser, who recently praised the Mearsheimer-Walt book demonizing the pro-Israel lobby, was also linked to Obama.
Another problematic relationship is Obama’s long-standing personal friendship with PLO academic and activist Columbia professor Rashid Khalidi and his wife, who were active fundraisers for Obama when he ran for Congress. Obama told the Los Angeles Times that the fond memories of the time spent with the Khalidi family serve “as constant reminders to me of my own blind spots.”
More recently, Obama appointed former US ambassador to Israel, Daniel Kurtzer, as a key political adviser for the Middle East. Kurtzer’s dovish views and belief that the US should pressure Israel to make further concessions are public knowledge. He recently lauded former secretary of state James Baker and former president George H.W. Bush for having threatened to suspend loan agreements in order to bring the Israelis into line. Kurtzer criticized both presidents Clinton and G.W. Bush for not having been tough enough with the Israelis. He accused Dennis Ross, the Clinton-appointed Middle East envoy, of displaying partiality in favor of the Israelis. He even blamed Clinton for “acceding to Barak’s request to blame Arafat publicly for the failure of the Camp David summit.”
Taking these factors into account, one might have assumed that Jews would be somewhat hesitant about supporting Obama. But the reality is that aside from the Orthodox, 50 percent of Jewish Democrat voters are said to have supported Obama against Hillary Clinton, and indications are that the majority of American Jews will continue backing him against Republican John McCain.
Some attribute this support to the adoration of liberalism shared by the majority of American Jews, which emotionally bond them to Obama, who enjoys virtually messianic status among leftist liberals.
Additionally, for the majority of younger non-Orthodox Jews, concern for Israel no longer preoccupies them as it did their forbears. This was reflected in the recent Stephen Cohen survey, which showed that more than 50 percent of non-Orthodox Jews under 35 would not consider the destruction of Israel to represent a “personal tragedy” for them.
Nonetheless, Obama took no chances on losing Jewish supporters and launched a dedicated campaign to woo the backing of the pro-Israel activists, in the process of which he rapidly dissociated himself from his previous dovish stands. In so doing, he also rode on the waves of American support for Israel.
This reached its climax at the AIPAC conference where all presidential candidates competed to shower praise on Israel. In an earlier remark, Obama had quipped that support of Israel need not reflect a Likud approach. Yet the address he delivered to the 7,500 people at AIPAC could have been made as a contestant in a Likud primary.
Besides opposing ties with Hamas, he referred to Israel’s need for “secure, recognized and defensible borders,” a formulation far more explicit than the vague Bush prescription of “demographic realities on the ground.” Obama has not withdrawn that statement, and hopefully American Jewish activists will concentrate their energies on trying to lock him into recognizing that defensible borders are indeed a crucial element of Israel’s security requirements for a final settlement.
In support for Jerusalem remaining the undivided capital of Israel, Obama went far beyond what the current Israeli government says, leaving Arabs and many of his left-wing constituents, including his Peace Now Jewish fans, outraged. Uri Avnery lambasted him for “breaking all records for obsequiousness and fawning,” and for “crawling in the dust at the feet of AIPAC.” Not surprisingly, in less than a day his spokesmen began backtracking, saying that the future of Jerusalem had to be determined directly by the parties themselves.
So we are left wondering. Can Obama be trusted to deliver on pre-election promises? Die-hard liberals will undoubtedly say yes, but many Jews who traditionally vote Democrat will think twice before casting their ballot.
But in fairness, it should be noted that among Obama supporters one can also find stalwart supporters for Israel like Marty Peretz, editor of The New Republic, AIPAC treasurer Lee Rosenberg and others who are not doves and would not easily be blinded by a candidate fundamentally hostile to Israel.
Obama may also have sincerely changed his views as he became engaged in the debate.
But sitting here in Jerusalem as an Israeli and not an American citizen, I would be concerned about a man who has associated himself for such a long period with people who are at best ambivalent and at worst range from being opposed to what we consider to be our vital interests to being rabid racists.
Having said that, I remain fairly optimistic that irrespective of who the American people elect as their next president, the friendship with Israel will remain intact.
The good news is that grassroot support for Israel in the United States is today overwhelmingly positive and genuinely bipartisan, ensuring that even a leader not kindly disposed to us would seriously hesitate before adopting an overtly anti-Israel position. Besides, who among us ever dreamed that George W. Bush was going to be on the side of the angels?
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