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Obama and the Jewish Vote

It will be interesting to watch how Barack Obama’s relationship with the Jewish community evolves. If you’re a Israeli-Palestinian dove as I am, Obama comes across as an enormously hopeful candidate. Because unlike Hillary, he hasn’t entirely swallowed the AIPAC line. While he defends Israel as strongly as any candidate, he also speaks to the suffering of the Palestinians. And normally, presidential candidates either can’t or won’t express sympathy for anyone but the Israelis during a campaign.
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Jewish Week features a story about Obama’s “outreach” to the Jewish community:

The [Obama] campaign has…signed on a leading Jewish Mideast expert, Dan Shapiro, a former National Security Council official in the Clinton administration. Shapiro is leaving his position as a top aide to Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) for a…role doing Mideast policy and Jewish outreach for the Obama campaign.

At the same time, the freshman senator signaled over the weekend that he isn’t going to follow the well-established path of repeating all the positions advocated by pro-Israel lobbyists. On Sunday, speaking on the CBS program “60 Minutes,” Obama was asked if he would “talk to Iran and Syria,” nations on the Bush administration diplomatic blacklist. Obama did not mince words.

“Yes,” he said. “I think that the notion that this administration has — that not talking to our enemies is effective punishment — is wrong.”

…Obama did not reject the eventual use of military force to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions but said he thought “our first step should be a much more aggressive approach to diplomacy than we’ve displayed thus far.”

The candidate’s words won praise from at least one leading Jewish pro-peace process advocate.

“The possibility of Iran getting atomic weapons, or of a war to deter Iran from getting them, are the biggest threats to Israel right now,” said M.J. Rosenberg, Washington director for the Israel Policy Forum (IPF). “To have a candidate who flat-out says we should talk to the Syrians and the Iranians to avert these contingencies is not only in the best interests of America, it’s in the best interests of Israel.”

What is refreshing to me is to hear a top-tier candidate independent enough to have a serious position with regard to the Mideast–one that embraces both Israelis and Palestinians–and isn’t written by AIPAC.

James Besser does make clear that Obama supported the Lebanon war, which I did not:

Obama supported Israel’s military actions against Hezbollah and Hamas last summer, saying, “I don’t think there is any nation that would not have reacted the way Israel did after two soldiers had been snatched. I support Israel’s response to take some action in protecting themselves.”

I don’t expect miracles from candidates. Perfection is not a possibility. So why belabor the point? He doesn’t have to be with me 100% of the time for him to be a candidate worthy of support.

Besides, how many U.S. senators could articulate such a nuanced understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:

obama at al najah universityObama speaks to Al Najah University students (credit: U.S. Consulate, Jerusalem)

In a Podcast during a trip to the region last summer, Obama said his visit to the West Bank offered a “sense of the differences between life for Palestinians and Israelis in this region. Palestinians have to suffer through the checkpoint system, the barriers, the fenced-in wall that exists just to get to their jobs, oftentimes to travel from north and south even within the West Bank. It’s created enormous hardship for them — there is high unemployment and the economy is not doing as well as it should.”

At the same time, he said the Palestinians “suffered from leadership that seemed to be more interested in the rhetoric of Israel’s destruction and less interested in actually constructively creating a peaceful solution to the problem and focusing on delivery of services to the Palestinian people.”

Hillary Clinton at Israeli security fenceClinton: “Wall is not against Palestinians.” (credit: AP)

Come to think of it, how many U.S. senators have visited the West Bank? Any? You know Hillary hasn’t. About as close as she got was that picture of her standing thoughtfully atop the Separation Wall looking off into the distance as she seemingly contemplates Israel’s security.

Besser assumes that fundraising among the Jewish community may be a weakness for Obama:

…Like most of his Democratic opponents, Obama starts the race far behind Clinton in the money chase.

Though he does note that the Illinois senator has prominent Jewish supporters, he leaves out the Big Kahuna of Jewish supporters, George Soros. The latter provided an enormous amount of support for Obama’s senate campaign and will certainly come to the plate to take his swings on his behalf during the primaries and election. Soros can make up for a lot of Clinton’s fundraising advantage with a virtually unlimited checkbook.

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{ 1 comment… add one }
  • Dahlia February 17, 2007, 11:41 AM

    Thanks for this piece… thoughtful balanced and really needed. I only hope that not only the American Jewish community, but also all Americans really concerned with bringing peace to the Middle East where both Israelis and Palestinians can live in peace, prosperity and diginity side-by-side see Obama as offering the possiblity of that future..

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