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November 20, 2008 - Image 27

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 2008-11-20

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.



Presidential Calling

How will Obama's election affect Israel?

Leslie Susser
Jewish Telegraphic Agency



arack Obama's election as
America's first black president
has left Israeli decision makers
deeply impressed, somewhat envious of
the workings of American democracy and,
in some corners, worried about possible
new U.S. policy directions.
With Israel in the throes of its own
election campaign, pundits also are ask-
ing how America's choice of Obama could
affect voters here in February, when Israel
holds general elections for Knesset and
prime minister.
The major Israeli foreign policy con-
cern is that Obama, who says he favors
negotiations with Iran, might begin talks
with Iranian leaders without precondi-
tions. Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni
says this would be interpreted as a sign
of weakness and send Tehran the wrong
message that it can build a nuclear weap-
on with impunity.
The Israeli fear is that if there are no
preconditions, Tehran simply will use talks
with the United States as a smokescreen
to continue its drive toward nuclear weap-
ons unhindered. The Israeli government
believes no talks should be launched
unless the Iranians agree to a verifiable
suspension of their uranium enrichment
program. At the very least, talks would
ensure a delay in Iran's nuclear plans.
After intensive policy-planning sessions
on the implications of Obama's victory,
the Foreign Ministry decided last week
to send seasoned Israeli diplomats to
Washington to urge members of the presi-
dent-elect's inner circle to insist on the
uranium suspension precondition and to
tighten sanctions against Iran if it balks.
The Israelis are confident this effort
could bear fruit, pointing out that, like
them, Obama is determined to prevent
Iran from going nuclear. They say any pos-
sible differences are over tactics alone.

Of Concern
Still, a more general fear among some
Israelis is that Obama may try to improve
America's battered standing in the Muslim
world by forcing Israel to make conces-
sions to the Palestinians. Foreign Ministry
officials insist that nothing so far would
indicate anything like that happening.

Still, Livni issued what appeared to be a
veiled appeal to Obama.
"The world:' she said, "should respect
the current peace process and not expect
Israel to make shortcuts that could under-
mine its basic interests."
If changes are made in U.S. policy on
the Palestinian track, Israeli officials do
not expect them to come soon. In the
short term, they say, the new Obama
administration will be focused on
the global economic crisis. After that,
other issues such as Iraq, Afghanistan
and mending fences with the Russians
will take precedence over the Israeli-
Palestinian conflict.
Obama's election may make the most
difference on the Israeli political scene.
His victory over Republican John McCain
doesn't seem to augur well for the conser-
vative Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu,
who is leading in some polls in the race
for prime minister. When Netanyahu was
prime minister from 1996 to 1999, there
was no meeting of the minds between
the hawkish Israeli leader, who was deter-
mined to hold onto parts of the West Bank
he viewed as vital Israeli assets, and a
Democratic administration in Washington
determined to stabilize the Middle East
by achieving a historic
Israeli-Palestinian peace

Barack Obama's election as U.S. president was met in Israel by a mix of elation,

skepticism, fear and political maneuvering.

ship and that it was after the two met in
Washington that Obama submitted a bill
to Congress to tighten sanctions on Iran.
Netanyahu also said that in their July
meeting in Jerusalem,
Obama "showed interest in
my plan to advance peace
with the Palestinians
through economic peace
Obama's election also
could prompt Israelis
concerned about possible
pressure from Washington
to gravitate toward Netanyahu, who is like-
lier to stand up to the U.S. administration.

Livni clai ms to
share a common
language with

Bibi Factor
Some pundits have
argued that the friction
between Netanyahu and
President Clinton was
one of the main factors
that eventually cost Netanyahu the pre-
Livni, the Kadima Party leader and
Netanyahu's main rival in the race to suc-
ceed Ehud Olmert, already is warning that
if Netanyahu becomes prime minister
again, Israel and the Obama administra-
tion could be on a similar collision course.
"If Israel presents itself as a country
that opposes any peace process, then the
world, led by the U.S., will try to force a
process on it:' she told the Knesset on Nov.
5."Just saying no has never helped Israeli
Netanyahu rejects these arguments out
of hand. In an open letter congratulat-
ing Obama published in the Israeli daily
Yediot Achronot, Netanyahu says he and
Obama have a good working relation-

Livni Stance
Livni is presenting herself as the candidate
for prime minister most likely to share
a common language with Obama. Both
would be vigorous first-time leaders dedi-
cated to newer, cleaner politics based on
pragmatic, middle-of-the road solutions.
She toured the beleaguered Israeli town
of Sderot with Obama in July and said she
saw a man "committed to Israel's well-
being and security:' In their meetings,
Livni said Obama showed a deep under-
standing of Israel's positions and needs,
including on why Israel cannot accept the
return of Palestinian refugees to Israel.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the

Labor leader and the third major-party
candidate for prime minister, is seeking
to portray himself as one who would be
able to work with Obama on the basis of
their mutual quest for regional stability.
But Barak would like to see the Obama
administration shift its Arab-Israeli focus
from the Palestinian to the Syrian track,
where he believes the chances of success
and strategic gains are greater.
Barak and other promoters of the
Syrian track believe it will take significant
U.S. economic and political inducements
to persuade Syria to break with its spon-
sor in Tehran, and they believe Obama
might be willing to make commitments
the Bush administration would not. So do
the Syrians, who expressed jubilation at
Obama's victory.
During the campaign, Obama indicated
he would support Israel-Syria talks but
did not discuss the scope of that support
or suggest it would displace U.S. focus on
pursuing an Israeli-Palestinian deal.
Of the three contenders for prime min-
ister, only Netanyahu seems vulnerable to
attack on the basis of incompatibility with
the new U.S. administration. The ques-
tion is how much his rivals will be able
to exploit this as Israel, unlike the United
States, appears to be turning politically to
the right. ❑

November 20 • 2008


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