Try America’s new dream, Israel

With Obama in, Israelis now need to elect another dove — Livni — for the peace process to have a chance.

By Jonathan Freedland, November 6, 2008

As one marathon election campaign ends, another begins. Though something tells me the world will not be following the battle of Tzipi Livni and Bibi Netanyahu - which will rage from now until February - with anything like the obsessive interest they showed in the clash of Barack Obama and John McCain.

Not that the Israeli contest will be lacking in drama. Bibi is just as ready to fight dirty as McCain was, while Livni's candidacy will be (sort of) historic. Ok, not a first like President-Elect Obama but for Livni to become Israel's second woman prime minister is not nothing.

And the stakes are high too. The leadership of the free world may not be at stake, as it was in the US, but the future of the Middle East may well be. Livni will go into the coming campaign as the peace candidate. She has been Israel's lead negotiator in the talks that have ground on for more than a year: by all accounts she is formidably good at it, serious and focused. Bibi, by contrast, is still the Mr No of Israeli politics, finding new ways to send the same old, negative message. His latest contribution to the peace effort? To insist that all of Jerusalem must stay permanently under Israeli control - even though everyone serious about peace knows that, eventually, the Arab neighbourhoods of Jerusalem will become part of Palestine, just as the Jewish neighbourhoods will remain part of Israel.

But there is a more substantial connection between these two elections - US and Israeli - than the relay-style baton-passing from one to the other; one may well affect the other. Recent history suggests that one of the very few external pressures that can influence Israeli public opinion is the threat of falling out with the United States. Let's face it, Israelis couldn't care less what Europeans think. But they do listen to the US. And they don't like being on the wrong side of them.

Cast your mind back to 1992, an election year in both Jerusalem and Washington. Israelis chose Yitzhak Rabin over Yitzhak Shamir in part because the latter had got into a stand-off with Washington. George Bush Sr had threatened to withdraw $10 billion in loan guarantees - needed by Israel to absorb Soviet refugees - if Israel persisted in building settlements in the occupied territories. Rabin promised to repair the rift with the US - and was duly elected.

A similar dynamic was at work in 1999, when Bill Clinton grew frustrated with Netanyahu's foot-dragging on the peace process. The Americans made it pretty clear they wanted to work with Ehud Barak instead - and the Israeli electorate promptly granted their wish.

The arrival of President Obama could work the same way. He has promised to work on Middle East peace the instant he is sworn into office on January 20. That will give him no more than a week or two before Israelis go to the polls, but it might be enough time to send them a clear signal: that he needs them to choose Livni over Bibi, so that he can get to work brokering the secure, genuine peace they crave. Israelis might not heed that call; they might share the attitude that was, regrettably, held by some older Jews in the US - seeing Obama as somehow suspect, thanks to internet lies claiming him to be a Muslim with extremist sympathies. But I'd like to think most Israelis will rise above that nonsense - as most American Jews did in the end.

I hope they see that the arrival of an Obama administration gives them the first real chance of diplomatic progress in eight years. George W Bush refused to lift a finger for seven of them, and it was Israelis and Palestinians who paid the price - sometimes in blood. For US engagement is the sine qua non of Middle East peacemaking. Without the Americans, nothing can happen.

Now the United States is back. I stood in Grant Park, Chicago this week as the President-Elect declared that "a new dawn of American leadership is at hand" - a new dawn that will certainly extend to the Middle East.

Israel has nothing to fear from such a re-engagement. Obama's team is led by former negotiator Dennis Ross, and includes the former US ambassador to Israel, and Orthodox Jew, Dan Kurzer, along with the Hebrew-speaking policy specialist Dan Shapiro. Their expertise, coupled with the clout a newly-elected Obama will carry in the international community, creates an opening. If a deal can be reached between Israelis and Palestinians, then President Obama may have the heft to bring the rest of the world - including the Arab states - on board, pushing them to meet their responsibilities.

But first Israelis must play their part. And that means electing the right person in February - just as the Americans did this week.

Last updated: 11:13am, November 6 2008