There are some time-honored traditions in American presidential politics. Candidates will claim a taste for local beef, regional specialties, and Iowa-produced ethanol. They will maintain that they are strong on defense yet gentle with babies. And they will declare themselves to be undying supporters of Israel.
As Barack Obama has struggled to connect with Jewish voters, a number of leading Jewish columnists have attempted to bolster the freshman senator's pro-Israel bona fides. In his article "Best for Israel? Don't Believe It," Gary Rosenblatt argues that all three presidential candidates (at the time) would approach Mideast policy in much the same way, reassuring pro-Israel voters that they "can feel comfortable with" each of them (Obama, Clinton, and McCain). Thomas Friedman suggests that voters should "knock off the churlish whispering campaign about what's in [Obama's] heart on Israel." Obama also seemed to strike all the right chords in his 2007 address to the AIPAC conference. His lofty oratory led Haaretz Washington correspondent Shmuel Rosner to declare that "at least rhetorically, Obama passed any test anyone might have wanted him to pass. So he is pro-Israel, period."
Yet doubts remain among many Jewish voters. And despite some of the above "kosherizing" of the freshman senator from Illinois, many of his past statements, current associates, and general ideology are troubling. They do not establish dispositively that Obama is anti-Israel. But they are certainly disquieting for anyone interested in Israel's fate.
Part of the problem has been a few perplexing comments, including an Obama declaration reported in the Des Moines Register that "nobody is suffering more than the Palestinian people." After this statement was publicized and many were miffed, he later clarified that he had in fact intended to blame the plight of the Palestinian people on their own leadership, not Israeli brutality or injustice. He simply assumed that his listeners would understand implicitly that Israel was not at fault.
More concerning have been some of the policy positions he has taken which are anathema to Israel's interest. Iran's Revolutionary Guards corps has long supported Hezbollah terrorists and otherwise abetted the murder of Israelis. Yet Senator Obama announced he would vote against Kyl-Lieberman, the Senate resolution declaring the IRGC a terrorist group, and then emphasized this vote as a "very real difference" he has with Senator Clinton in their foreign-policy perspectives. (Obama missed the vote while campaigning in New Hampshire, but he made his position clear.)
Most disconcerting about Senator Obama's support for Israel is that it seems so new. Barack Obama's life and political career have been marked with close ties to anti-Israel causes and personalities. The L.A. Times recently detailed Obama's close relationship with Rashid Khalidi, a professor of Arab Studies at Columbia University. Khalidi gained national attention in 2005 when he argued that under international law, Palestinians have a right to violently resist the occupation and attack (read: murder) Israeli settlers. Khalidi co-founded the Arab American Action Network (AAAN), an organization dedicated to churning out vicious anti-Israel propaganda.
But while most Americans may be repulsed by these sentiments, it seems Obama had a different reaction. While Obama served on the board of directors for the Woods Fund in Chicago, the board donated $75,000 in grants to the AAAN. Khalidi was close enough to then-State Senator Obama to hold a fundraiser in 2000 for Obama's failed Congressional bid. In 2003, Obama attended a tribute dinner for Khalidi where, according to the L.A. Times, a speaker likened "Zionist settlers on the West Bank" to Osama bin Laden. Obama gave a toast of his own, thanking Khalidi and his wife for serving as "consistent reminders to me of my own blind spots and my own biases… It's for that reason that I'm hoping that, for many years to come, we continue that conversation—a conversation that is necessary not just around Mona and Rashid's dinner table," but around "this entire world." It seems unlikely that supporters of Israel would want that conversation continued in the Oval Office.
Ali Abunimah, cofounder of the pro-Palestinian blog Electronic Intifada, wrote an article proclaiming his disappointment with Obama's AIPAC speech and current position. Nonetheless, Ali Abunimah claims that "Mr. Obama would unequivocally be the most pro-Palestinian president in history." And he has his own personal history with Obama upon which to base that judgment. Having first met Obama ten years ago, he has observed that Obama has been "close to some prominent Arab-Americans and has received their best advice." And, according to Ali Abunimah, Obama had been strongly influenced by their views, consistently and forthrightly criticizing U.S. policy and calling for an even-handed approach to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
And once Obama realized that these anti-Israel positions would hurt his political future, he also showed a willingness to play the crudest of disingenuous old-style politics, openly claiming that his words did not represent his true beliefs. According to Ali Abunimah, Obama said, "Hey, I'm sorry I haven't said more about Palestine right now, but we are in a tough primary race. I'm hoping when things calm down I can be more up-front." He then encouraged Ali Abunimah to continue his pro-Palestinian activism, including columns in the the Chicago Tribune critical of Israeli and U.S. policy, telling him to "keep up the good work"! If this is what Obama views as "good work," it is no wonder that Obama garnered a ringing endorsement from the terrorist organization Hamas.
Obama has followed his ties to anti-Israel partisans by choosing campaign advisors who have been more explicit about their views on the Middle East. Zbigniew Brzezinski, National Security Advisor under Jimmy Carter, has recently endorsed and campaigned with Obama. Brzezinski is known not only for his frequent criticism of Israeli "intransigence," but also for defending the notorious The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, the book by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt that argues that Jewish organizations and lobbies have worked to influence U.S. policy to defend Israel against its own interests.
Samantha Power, a key foreign-policy advisor who was eventually fired from the Obama campaign for calling Hillary Clinton "a monster," has said that her advice to the U.S. president would be for America to "impose" a "mammoth protection force" on Israel to protect the Palestinians, and invest billions of dollars to service Palestinian security instead of Israeli security. She also equated Sharon and Arafat as "Sharafat," saying that both "are fundamentally politically destined to destroy the lives of their own people." She bemoaned the fact that her solution would alienate "a domestic constituency of tremendous political and financial import."
Perhaps most worrisome is Obama's selection for chief military advisor and national campaign co-chairman General Merrill "Tony" McPeak. In 1976, McPeak wrote in an article in Foreign Policy saying that the main impediment to peace in the Mideast was Israel's refusal to return to its 1967 borders. In a 2003 interview in The Oregonian, McPeak accused Jewish and evangelical voters of placing their interests in Israel over those of the United States. When asked about the single most important factor holding back Middle East peace, McPeak responded, "New York City. Miami. We have a large vote here in favor of Israel. No politician wants to run against it." McPeak is a leading candidate for Secretary of Defense in an Obama administration and has emerged as one of Obama's closest advisors in the campaign.
Despite some of the pro-Israel endorsements of Obama, there are many who remain far from impressed. Danny Ayalon, former Israeli ambassador to the United States, was sufficiently concerned about a prospective Obama administration that he penned an opinion piece asking "Who are you, Barack Obama?" After his meetings with Senator Obama, the former ambassador "was left with the impression that [Obama] was not entirely forthright with his thinking." He raised a host of issues—face-to-face discussions with Ahmadenijad, Israel's qualitative military edge, and the threat of Islamic terrorism—where Obama has been unclear or unhelpful. While Gary Rosenblatt argued that due to the emerging consensus on the contours of an eventual Israeli-Palestinian settlement, we know enough about Obama's stance on Israel, Ambassador Ayalon takes the opposite approach. "The four years ahead are far too critical for global security," he warns, "to place the presidency of the United States in the hands of a leader whose campaign is leaving us with more questions than answers."
While many pro-Israel Democrats may be anxious about making Barack Obama the world's most powerful man, they are still eager to regain the White House for their party, particularly after the close election in 2000. If anyone should be disappointed about losing Florida—and therefore the election—by 537 votes, it should be Senator Joe Lieberman, the Democratic vice-presidential nominee at that time. Yet after assessing the positions and personalities of John McCain and Barack Obama, Senator Lieberman is staunchly supporting Senator McCain, largely due to his lack of confidence in Senator Obama's approach to foreign policy. "Barack Obama," Senator Lieberman declared in the Wall Street Journal, "has not been willing to stand up to his party's left wing on a single significant national-security or international economic issue in this campaign."
Is there any reason to believe Senator Obama will stand up to the left wingers in American universities, European salons, and even his own campaign who believe the foremost problem in the Middle East is Israeli intransigence? With Hamas gaining control of the Gaza Strip, Hezbollah expanding its power in Lebanon, and Iran flexing its muscles to threaten Israel and America, should pro-Israel voters trust the next four or eight years with Barack Obama?
Despite Obama's strongly pro-Palestinian friends and foreign-policy advisors who instinctively first blame Jewish Americans for Middle East failures, and despite the warnings of Ambassador Ayalon and Senator Lieberman, some may argue that today, Obama is, in fact, pro-Israel. Speaking to reporters in Texas, Obama staunchly defended his record: "Nobody has ever been able to point to statements that I made or positions I have taken that are contrary to the long-term security interests in Israel." Obama went on to point out that he would be a "good friend" to Israel. Perhaps. But given the evidence, pro-Israel voters may well decide that with friends like these…
Dr. Jay Lerman is a radiologist who practices in Bay Ridge (Brooklyn) and lives in Woodmere. Nathan Lerman is a former White House intern currently serving as editor-in-chief of the Yeshiva University Commentator.