Friday, February 16, 2007

The House Negro Speaks; Just Like Every Other Tepid Democrat!

Obama will soon make the case that he'll be as strong on
Israel as anyone

By Shmuel Rosner

16 February 2007

My 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

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

"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

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

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

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