What Obama Needs From Us
NEW YORK — At this historic moment, with the election of the nation’s first black president, it would be appropriate for Americans to recite a national version of the “Shehecheyanu” prayer, expressing gratitude for “allowing us to reach this season,” a turning point for our democracy that many of us never thought we would witness in our lifetime.
But it is also a time for many of us in the Jewish community to reflect on the “Al Chet” prayer we say throughout the day of Yom Kippur, asking forgiveness for a litany of sins we have committed, the majority of which focus on forms of speech, including spreading gossip and rumors.
As a Jewish newspaper editor for more than 35 years, I have never witnessed the kind of mean-spirited and unproven charges against a presidential candidate as were evident in this campaign, building to a crescendo of near-hysteria in recent weeks among official partisans, not to mention bloggers, letter writers and others.
One did not have to be a Democrat or supporter of Barack Obama to worry about some of the reactions in our community to his candidacy. It was, and is, difficult to separate out legitimate concerns about his inexperience and his ties to critics of Israel from irrational fears about his attitudes toward Israel’s security and from disturbing elements of racism among us.
I share a very real worry about how the next administration will deal with a host of dangerous foreign policy crises, including the Mideast, but I also worry about how those who seemed to demonize Obama during the long campaign will adjust to the reality of his election. I suspect that the scars will be a long time healing.
Now is the time for an increasingly divided Jewish community, mirroring a red state-blue state American society, to pull together in the best interests of the country and of our own self-preservation. Rather than continue to caution about Obama’s alleged popularity in the Arab world or fears that he will abandon Jerusalem, we must do all we can to make the case, as he himself has done in numerous addresses, that America’s interests are entwined with Israel’s, and that each country strengthens the other.
As president, Obama will be looking for a clear and coherent message from the American Jewish community on how, and at what pace, to proceed in trying to bring Palestinians and Israelis closer to some form of resolution. It may be tempting for critics of Palestinian intransigence to say, in effect, “the hell with them,” and leave the tattered Oslo-Wye River-Camp David-Taba-Annapolis talks aside. But such a vacuum can be fatal in the Mideast, and most Israelis understand they will be the ones to suffer from such neglect. Hamas, the terror group ruling Gaza, is the primary beneficiary of the status quo, just waiting for the more moderate Fatah leaders to fail.
If and when negotiations for a two-state solution are set aside, the alternative becomes a one-state “solution,” which translates into a Jewish minority in Israel and the end of a Jewish state as we know it.
There is no reason to believe that Obama will abandon his views that America will stand by Israel in its struggles; there is also no reason for us not to press the case that only a secure Israel can make concessions. More and more, logic calls for a kind of armistice, or hudna, with the Palestinian Authority.
Rather than press for a full agreement, including a resolution on Jerusalem and the refugee problem, which is not happening, Israel and the PA should take advantage of what they agree on, which is considerable. Namely, security for Israel, economic help for the PA and what Mideast expert David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy calls “an anti-Hamas alliance.”
It could well be that by the time Obama becomes president, Fatah and Hamas will be engaged in a full-scale war, since PA President Mahmoud Abbas insists he has another year in office while Hamas says his tenure ends Jan. 9.
Look for Israel to fully support Fatah in such a conflict. The U.S. must be prepared to do the same in a civil war over the fate of the West Bank.
Far more pressing, though, is the prospect of an Iran with nuclear arms, which Obama has characterized as “a game changer” and something he would not allow to happen, not only because of the obvious threat to Israel but because it would set off a nuclear arms race throughout the Mideast states and could allow terror groups like Hezbollah to wreak havoc in the region.
In the wake of the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, no U.S. president could engage this country in yet another military conflict without first attempting to negotiate with our adversary. In talking to Iran, Washington will need to be firm in its demands, taking advantage of the current low oil prices and the fact that the new administration is willing to talk, and listen. A military option, no matter how risky or unappealing, must remain on the table.
A positive sign that Obama recognizes the priority and value of dealing with the Mideast would be for him to waste no time in appointing a high-level, experienced envoy to deal with Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, understanding that the key to success is to affirm our unwavering commitment to Israel’s security.
In the meantime, we American Jews, despite our differences on what’s best for this country and for Israel, must focus on what unites rather than divides us — chiefly a deep-seated commitment to democratic ideals and human freedoms that have benefited minorities like us and allowed a strong U.S.-Israel relationship to take root and grow.
That, too, deserves a prayer of thanksgiving.
(Gary Rosenblatt, the editor and publisher of The New York Jewish Week, can be reached at Gary@jewishweek.org. This column previously appeared in The Week.)