My friend Sol Salbe just told me that after Michelle Obama, the next happiest woman in the world about Barack Obama’s victory is Tzipi Livni. Israelis are no fools. Despite their vaunted independence and prickliness when the world appears to be telling them what to do, Israelis “don’t need a weathervane to know which way the winds blow.” Perhaps if John McCain had won the Israeli voter would’ve felt empowered to choose Bibi Netanyahu. But with Obama’s blowout victory, Israelis can sense that Americans have tired of the Bush administration’s blank check approach to dealing with Israeli settlements and the conflict with the Palestinians. Clearly, Israelis do not take their marching orders from Washington. But I think the spirit of the U.S. election will have a substantial impact on the Israeli election.
The most moving passage in Obama’s victory speech tonight was one that should resonate in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa:
…To all those watching tonight from beyond our shores, from parliaments and palaces to those who are huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of our world our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared, and a new dawn of American leadership is at hand. To those who would tear this world down we will defeat you. To those who seek peace and security we support you. And to all those who have wondered if America’s beacon still burns as bright tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from our the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity, and unyielding hope.
For that is the true genius of America that America can change. Our union can be perfected.
Obama is telling the world that he’s less interested in going to war with Iran than in negotiating his way out of the nuclear impasse. He’s telling Israel that it too must hold true to its own democratic ideals and not fall prey to the illusion that military power can impose its will on the Palestinian people. He’s telling Syria that there’s a place for it in the family of nations if it chooses to turn its back on Iran and embrace peace with Israel. And I think he’s telling the Palestinian people that though he may not be their champion, he will ensure that they get a fairer deal than has been possible for the past eight years.
Though Obama has campaigned as somewhat of a hardliner on issues like Iran and Jerusalem to ensure support from the Jewish community, I do not believe he will govern or implement policy as a hawk. Nor will he be the “anti-Israel” pushover imagined by McCain and Jewish Republicans. He will not govern from ideology or even primarily from a sense of altruism. He will be a hard-headed realist trying to hold fast to a set of overarching principles.
Despite promising Aipac that he would never accept a divided Jerusalem (and finessing that statement the following day), he will indeed accept such an eventuality. Tzipi Livni is in effect endorsing this option, making it easier for Obama to do so as well when the right time comes. Though he has said Hamas is not a partner for peace, I think he realizes this is not a realistic approach if you want to bring the entire spectrum of Palestinian opinion into a peace agreement. At some point in the next four years, both the Israeli and U.S. governments will be talking to Hamas. Perhaps not directly, but they will be negotiating with Hamas. There is no other way.
Obama will probably also come down somewhere close to the Geneva Initiative/Saudi peace plan provisions for a return of the vast majority of West Bank territority while retaining the largest and oldest settlement population centers. Essentially, he will have an opportunity to turn back the clock to Taba in 2000 and see if he can get it right this time.
Equally important is what happens in Israel. In the short term, Ehud Olmert will be Israel’s prime minister. Given Olmert’s seminal interview in Yediot Ahronot in which he essentially conceded the entire progressive analysis of the conflict over the past 40 years, we can assume that Olmert and the Obama administration might achieve substantial progress on issues like negotiations with Syria and perhaps with the Palestinians. But I don’t think that Israel will be willing to allow Olmert to seal a deal in any of these matters given the election upcoming on February 10th.
What happens on that date is crucial to the future of the entire region. If Bibi Netanyahu, leader of the Likud opposition, and until recently frontrunner in the polls wins, then it will be a cold day in Hell before peace agreements are signed with either the Syrians or Palestinians. In addition, we can expect continuing bellicosity towards Iran (and vice versa). Certainly an Israeli attack against Iran is in the cards along with escalating violence towards the Palestinians. One should expect Hamas to forgo its six month long truce and return to Qassam and terror attacks.
No matter how deft Obama’s policy is, I don’t see any way he can make progress with the rejectionist Likud in power. No one should make any mistake that Netanyahu is capable to doing a Sharon and becoming a pragmatic moderate when faced with governing (as opposed to campaigning, which always brings out the worst in Israeli politicians). Netanyahu is no Sharon. He is an opportunist and ideologue at the same time, but he is not pragmatic in the way that Sharon was.
But happily there is another scenario that polls have lately confirmed may be possible. After facing down two Orthodox parties which were shaking her down for large financial incentives to join the governing coalition she was attempting to broker, her popularity has increased substantially. Current polls show her with a slight edge over Netanyahu. It should be noted that such polls are extremely volatile in Israel and there are several political lifetimes between now and February 10th.
That being said, if we project that Tzipi Livni wins the election, then the sky’s the limit. We will have an eminently pragmatic U.S. president and a newly pragmatic Israeli prime minister. Both are deeply serious politicians who understand that there is a lot riding on their success not just for their respective countries and the region, but the world itself. While each side may historically not miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity (to repurpose an old Abba Eban insult directed at the Palestinians), but I believe it will be different with Obama and Livni.
As I wrote above, their is a general consensus on the outlines of an agreement: a return to pre-67 borders with slight territorial adjustments, sharing Jerusalem, financial compensation for Palestinian 1948 refugees, full diplomatic recognition and normalization of relations with Arab nations.
Despite the fact that the outline is known, that will not make it any easier to reach an agreement. Doing so will require Livni to make much more painful decisions than even Sharon made in evacuating Gaza. Despite the fact that Israel will likely be able to retain the largest and oldest settlement blocs, there will be much pain both for the settlers and Israel at large at giving up on the dream of Greater Israel.
Extremists among the settlement movement have determined to exact a stiff price for every government action that harms their interest. The threat of Jewish terror is very real. In fact, the Shin Bet has just warned that such militants may be planning on political assassinations as one of their tactics of drawing blood in the struggle against a state many of them view as illegitimate. The security chief, Yuval Diskin told the cabinet the following:
“The scope of the conflict will be much larger than it is today and than it was during the disengagement,” Diskin warned. “Our investigation found a very high willingness among this public to use violence…in order to prevent or halt a diplomatic process.”
While Diskin did not comment explicitly on the danger of another political assassination, the timing of his warning – just days before the anniversary of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination – was not lost on cabinet members.
“They [the settlers] don’t think like us. Their thought is messianic, mystic, satanic and irrational,” Infrastructure Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer said, warning of another political assassination.
“What we are seeing today is the result of a deep rift with the faith-based community, and not only in the West Bank,” Diskin said. “Their…slogan is ‘through war, we will win.”
Clearly, Livni is an untested commodity until now. No one knows whether she, like Sharon, will have the intestinal fortitude to face down the extreme nationalist Israeli right. After all, her own political heritage derives from parents who waved the banner as senior leaders of the nationalist right and may even have supported acts of Jewish terror in the struggle for statehood. It should be added though, that Livni is no ideologue and has freed herself from any adherence to rightist ideology. She is a centrist and a pragmatist. But whether she has a vision of where Israel needs to go and how to get there is an open question.
And this is where the skill and persuasive powers of a President Obama will be called for. He must forge an alliance with Livni that carries both Israeli and American Jewish opinion before it. He must also sell the deal to both the Palestinians and the Syrians. The latter, in particular will require a major break with past U.S. policy. We must bring the Syrian regime back in from the cold to which it was subjected for the eight years of the Bush administration. Obama must do this not so much because he admires Bashir Assad, but because doing so will likely transform the region. Peace with Syria opens the possibility of normalization of Israeli relations with Lebanon. And finally, “turning” Syria will further isolate Iran and bring Syria into a closer relationship with the west.
Regarding Iran, if an Obama administration can destroy the Iran-Syria alliance while at the same time persuading the ayatollahs that he is willing to open a dialogue with them on issues of interest to them (including normalization of relations)–then perhaps a compromise could emerge on Iran’s nuclear research. I believe that if the Bush administration can broker a deal with North Korea as appears likely from latest developments, then there is no reason Obama couldn’t do the same with Iran.
I think the prevailing notion of Obama administration Middle East policy should be that there are no permanent enemies, only permanent interests. Peace must be a permanent and prevailing interest. And peace IS achievable.