This week, Sen. Barack Obama (D.-Ill.) decided to stop letting others speak for him when it came to his position on Israel. Given the range of views imputed to or associated with him by a wide variety of sources, it wasn’t a moment too soon.
Rather than allow the debate be defined by urban legends spread via e-mail about his Muslim ties or the identity of his foreign-policy advisers, Obama was wise to get people to stop talking about Zbigniew Brzezinski and Robert Malley, and to start parsing his own words.
Obama’s question-and-answer session with members of the Jewish community in Cleveland was fascinating and remarkably candid. It also should go a long ways toward reassuring voters that an Obama administration would not rupture the U.S.-Israel alliance.
He told them that he supports Israel’s existence unconditionally and views its security as non-negotiable. He wants to eliminate the threat to Israel from the radical regime in Iran that has vowed to destroy it. Though he favors diplomacy to back off Tehran, he says that he won’t negotiate with Hamas so long as it refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist. He also says all the people that he listens to on Middle East policy are stalwart friends of Israel.
As for the fact that the pastor of his church has lauded Louis Farrakhan, Obama says he disagrees with him and rejects any expression of anti-Semitism.
Everybody satisfied? Well, we should be. These statements place him well within the range of pro-Israel opinion in this country.
Saying all this earned Obama his pro-Israel merit badge. Yet that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ask him to clarify his positions in the coming months.
In his Cleveland statement, he made the mistake of saying that he favors a Palestinian state that will be "contiguous."
Supporting such a state is not controversial anymore. It’s the Palestinians and the Arabs who don’t appear to want one, preferring to hold on to their hopes of destroying Israel. But even if the Palestinians do accept it one day — given the realities of the map — making it "contiguous" is impossible.
Obama also said that being "pro-Israel" doesn’t mean being "pro-Likud," and that being for peace doesn’t mean that someone’s against Israel.
He’s right about that. But he’s also drawing on the old paradigm of American Jews being split along pro-Labor and pro-Likud lines in their affection for Israel. That may have once been true, but it’s an outdated way of looking at things.
In the wake of the collapse of the Oslo process, most Israelis and American Jews realize that such a division is meaningless. Both the left and the right in Israel have failed — and almost everyone knows it. Israelis want peace and are willing to make sacrifices for it, yet they no longer blindly trust in the peaceful intentions of their antagonists.
Obama needs to drop this line, especially since, if he’s elected president, the odds are that he may have to work with a Likud prime minister of Israel named Benjamin Netanyahu some time during his term of office.
That said, like anyone who makes such unequivocal statements, Obama must now be considered a card-carrying member of the pro-Israel "lobby" conspiracy, as defined by authors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt.
All of which has to be highly disappointing to a number of people who would otherwise be the senator’s natural allies.
Obama’s rhetoric of inclusion and natural charisma has created a groundswell of support from a wide spectrum of opinion, including some people who are chagrined at his proclaimed fealty to a pro-Israel platform.
One such supporter is Tikkun magazine editor Michael Lerner, a pillar of the hard left, who is deeply critical of both Israeli measures of self-defense against Palestinian terror and American supporters of Israel. He sees Obama as a kindred spirit. But he wrote last month to lament the fact that Obama had apparently sold his soul to AIPAC.
According to Lerner, "Obama’s problem is that his spiritual progressive worldview is in conflict with the demands of the older generation of Jews who control the Jewish institutions and define what it is to be pro-Jewish, while his base consists of many young Jews who support him precisely because he is willing to publicly stand for the values that they hold."
More disappointed was Palestinian-American extremist Ali Abunimah, who said to Public Broadcasting’s "Democracy Now" program that when Obama was his state senator in Illinois he was an opponent of Israel, but now laments "how far he has moved to try to appease AIPAC and pro-Israel movements."
This point was underlined this past weekend by perennial presidential candidate Ralph Nader, who fulminated on "Meet the Press" that Obama used to be "pro-Palestinian," but now backs the "destruction" of Gaza.
Abunimah and Nader have given up on Obama, but Lerner is holding on to some hope that he will revert to his "spiritual progressive" identity.
The odds of that happening are pretty slim since, no matter what his foreign-policy positions might have been when he was in the Illinois State Senate, Obama knows the vast majority of Americans whose votes he needs to win in November when he hopes to face off against Republican Sen. John McCain will not support a man who repudiates the bond between Israel and the United States.
The moral of the story is that the citizens of the people’s republic of Berkeley, Calif., like Lerner, as well as the radical anti-Israel/Jimmy Carter wing of the Democratic Party, have irrevocably lost Barack Obama (if indeed, they ever had him) because a person who does not embrace Israel cannot represent himself as part of the political mainstream.
In the views of hard-core leftists like Nader, Obama’s pro-Israel apostasy validates the Walt-Mearsheimer thesis about the dark power of the "lobby conspiracy."
But what it demonstrates is that, far from being a cabal, the pro-Israel position cuts across most demographic and political lines to form what is truly a bipartisan consensus. Defying it requires not an act of courage, but of political suicide.
Given all this, does this mean that we should cease, as some partisans urge, probing candidates to spell out their positions on Israel and the Middle East?
The answer here is no.
Though some fear that even to debate the putative superiority of one candidate over another on Israel is unhelpful, the process by which the would-be presidents are forced to spell out their positions is instructive.
Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia.