Why President Obama could be good for Israel

A more involved US president might boost the peace process

Barack Obama has so far managed to defy one expectation after another. He has come from being a virtually unknown greenhorn to defeating Hillary Clinton as the Democratic presidential candidate. And he may yet become America’s first ever black president, as well as one of its youngest.

So would President Obama repudiate the whispering doubts about his pro-Israel and Jewish-friendly credentials that have accompanied his campaign?

It is hard to give much credence to viral emails which claimed that he was really a Muslim, or to others warning that he was chums with Palestinian radicals. And while he was endorsed by Hamas, there is no question of his feeling any reciprocal warmth. His former pastor made some unfortunate comments about Israel, but having to distance oneself from a problematically big-mouthed cleric seems to have become de rigueur on this campaign.

More significant is his lack of foreign-policy experience, of special concern when coupled with his support for direct negotiations with Iran, “without preconditions”. A nuclear Iran is viewed by Israel as its biggest strategic danger.

But being a novice does not necessarily equate with being naïve. President Obama will know that he needs a more sophisticated approach, and his lack of experience will make him rely on his foreign-policy advisers. Some controversy has already surrounded his outer circle. Robert Malley, a former special assistant to President Bill Clinton on Arab-Israeli affairs, was dropped after it emerged that he had had contact with Hamas through his work with the International Crisis Group. Similarly, the Obama campaign has been at pains recently to distance itself from foreign-policy veteran Zbigniew Brzezinski, who has been harshly critical of Israeli policy but who was once praised generously by Obama.

But what is crucial are the people who might make up his administration, and those actually working for his campaign have near-impeccable records on Israel. There is Washington strategist Dan Shapiro, his main point man on Middle East policy; former legislative assistant Eric Lynn, his liaison with the Jewish community; and former policy adviser Dennis McDonough, all supporters of strong ties with Israel. Others in his inner orbit include Anthony Lake, a veteran diplomat, who converted to Judaism in 2005 — and who, like Obama, favours balancing security concerns with an openness for dialogue. And he draws on a great reservoir of experience from the Clinton years of Arab-Israeli diplomacy with Dennis Ross, a key figure who shaped US Middle East policy, as well as Daniel Kurtzer, a former ambassador to Israel.

It is important to remember that it is not just the Jewish community that Obama needs to satisfy with his attitude to Israel, which is seen as a strong ally by the average American. Thus far, he has a pretty positive voting record.

But what President Obama could do to best help Israel is to have the courage to push forward the peace process, unlike his predecessor. Dubya had a pretty lukewarm record on his engagement with Israel-Palestine issues, distracted as he was by his disastrous war in Iraq — although privately many are doubtless hoping he will take military action against Iran before the end of his presidency.

Israel is entering yet another period of political uncertainty, and it is impossible to know just who the PM will be if and when Barack Obama is elected president. But real US involvement could be a boost to any Israeli leader.

President Obama’s approach to the Middle East may be more nuanced — but a friendly yet critical approach might give enough leverage on Jerusalem and enough credibility with the Arabs actually to achieve something. However in love with Israel previous US presidents may have been, none of them ever managed to bring peace.

    Last updated: 4:22pm, June 5 2008