Obama Under the Microscope in Israel
By Nathan Diament
July 22, 2008
Tomorrow, Barack Obama will step off his plane into Israel and under a microscope. While he is there, American voters – Jews, Evangelical Christians and others – who factor a presidential candidate’s policies toward Israel into their electoral choice, will watch Obama’s every step and listen to his every word very, very closely.
Recent polling indicates that Barack Obama has less support among American Jews than previous Democratic presidential nominees. This is not merely because an unprecedented campaign has been waged by viral emails and incendiary articles falsely portraying Obama as harboring secret biases for the Palestinian cause and taking advice from persons openly hostile to Israel’s interests. It is because Obama is seeking to succeed a pair of American presidents who each remain extremely popular in Israel and among her supporters for one basic reason – Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, each in their own way, conveyed a gut level kinship with the Jewish state. Obama has yet to convey convincingly that he is similarly committed to Israel in his kishkes.
As Obama arrives in Israel, he should be mindful that when President Bush was there in May to join in Israel’s sixtieth anniversary celebrations the President was received with warmth and appreciation he can rarely find in the U.S. these days. In the wake of many setbacks, Bush’s notions of “moral clarity” and fighting “those who perpetrate evil” have become sarcastic punchlines in American discourse. But if you’re an Israeli who’s lived through waves of suicide bombers targeting your city’s commuter buses and rockets being launched into your neighborhood, you have seen evil firsthand.
And when you hear the president of an Islamic state publicly commit to do in six minutes what Hitler did in six years – wipe half of the world’s Jews off the earth – and openly pursue the weapons to fulfill this mad promise, you know evil still looms and must be confronted forcefully. While Israel and her friends might question one of his policies or another, they do not question where George W. Bush’s allegiance lies, they know it is with their cause.
Like Bush, President Bill Clinton is considered a true friend of Israel as well. Clinton tried mightily to broker a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians, personally convening meetings in the region and at Camp David and, knowing every hill and wadi better than any local shepherd, put forward his own proposals to try and bridge the gaps and seal the deal. He also demonstrated his signature empathy for the Jewish state as it mourned at Yitzhak Rabin’s funeral. Clinton’s approach was right for his time. But when the negotiations failed and the Palestinians launched the second intifada, Clinton correctly laid the blame at Yasir Arafat’s feet.
And this brings us back to would-be-president Barack Obama. Supporters of Israel may know that Obama has said “Israel’s security is sacrosanct.” And they may also know that Obama said “the danger from Iran is grave…and my goal will be to eliminate this threat.” But many in Israel and among her supporters in the U.S. remain uncertain whether Obama is merely mouthing these words, or truly believes them in his gut.
Obama seems to know that it is this deeper connection that is being looked for. Over the course of the long primary campaign, Obama appeared before American Jewish audiences in Illinois, New York, Ohio, Florida and elsewhere. And over the course of these meetings, Obama’s positions did not change, but his rhetoric did. He moved from stating his policy positions rather simply, to placing them in a context of personal connection. He began to speak of how Israel and Zionism are “important to me personally” and relate to his personal “history of being uprooted;” he spoke of how Jewish thought “shaped my sensibility;” he told of his great uncle who was among American soldiers who liberated Jews from the Nazi death camps; and he spoke of knowing that he could come to be an African-American nominated for the presidency because of the deep Jewish involvement in America’s civil rights movement.
Barack Obama was last under this microscope when he addressed the AIPAC policy conference in June. In the passage dealing with the challenge of Iran seeking nuclear weapons, Obama’s prepared text read: “I will do everything in my power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”
Obama read that line, and then said: “everything in my power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon…everything.” In doing so, Obama sought not to convey the substance of the statement, but that it was coming from somewhere deeper inside. While in Israel, Barack Obama will need to reveal more of what’s in his kishkes if he wants to succeed Clinton and Bush in winning over Israel and her supporters in the United States.
Nathan J. Diament is Director of Public Policy for the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.