Dear Barack Obama
By Yossi Klein Halevi
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A letter from an anxious Israeli to the presidential candidate on the eve of his visit to Jerusalem
ERUSALEM — Dear Senator Obama,
Welcome to Israel. When you arrive here today, you will encounter a people intrigued by your candidacy and, given the current crisis of Israeli leadership, envious of your capacity to inspire. Issues that have worried some Americans about your background have scarcely been noted here. The whispering campaign labeling you a Muslim wasn't taken seriously by mainstream Israelis. Nor are we fazed by your middle name: Half of Israel's Jewish population has origins in Muslim cultures. Despite black-Jewish tensions in America, your color evokes little concern here; Israel rescued tens of thousands of African Jews and turned their arrival into a national celebration. Even Rev. Wright didn't cause much of a stir, maybe because we're used to being embarrassed by our own religious leaders.
Still, as much as Israelis want to embrace you, there is anxiety here about your candidacy. Not that we doubt your friendship: Your description of Israeli security as "sacrosanct," and your passionate endorsement of Israel's cause at the annual AIPAC conference in Washington, were greeted with banner headlines in the Israeli press. Instead, Israelis worry that, as president, you might act too hastily in trying to solve the Palestinian problem, and not hastily enough in trying to solve the Iranian problem.
On the surface, the Israel you will encounter is thriving. The beaches and cafes are crowded, the shekel is one of the world's strongest currencies, our high-tech companies are dominating NASDAQ, our wineries are winning international medals, and we even export goat cheese to France.
But beneath the exuberance lies a desperate nation. The curse of Jewish history — the inability to take mere existence for granted — has returned to a country whose founding was intended to resolve that uncertainty. Even the most optimistic Israelis sense a dread we have felt only rarely — like in the weeks before the Six Day War, when Egyptian President Gammal Abdul Nasser shut down the Straits of Tiran, moved his army toward our border, and promised the imminent destruction of Israel. At the time, Lyndon Johnson, one of the best friends Israel ever had in the White House, was too preoccupied with an unpopular war to offer real assistance.
We feel our security unraveling. Terror enclaves have emerged on two of our borders, undoing a decades-long Israeli policy to deny terrorist bases easy reach to our population centers. The cease-fire with Hamas is widely seen here as a defeat — an admission that Israel couldn't defend its communities on the Gaza border from eight years of shelling, and an opportunity for Hamas to consolidate its rule and smuggle in upgraded missiles for the inevitable next round of fighting. The unthinkable has already happened: missiles on Haifa and Ashkelon, exploding buses in Jerusalem, hundreds of thousands of Israelis transformed into temporary refugees. During the first Gulf War in 1991, when Tel Aviv was hit with Scud missiles, residents fled to the Galilee. During the Second Lebanon War in 2006, when the Galilee was hit with Katyushas, residents fled to Tel Aviv. In the next war, there will be nowhere to flee: The entire country is now within missile range of Iran and its terrorist proxies.
Above all else, we dread a nuclear Iran. With few exceptions, the consensus within the political and security establishment is that Israel cannot live with an Iranian bomb. In the U.S., a debate has begun over whether the Iranian regime is rational or apocalyptic. In truth no one knows whether the regime, or elements within it, would be mad enough to risk nuclear war. But precisely because no one knows, Israel will not place itself in a position to find out. As we contemplate the possibility of an Israeli military strike, we worry about the extent of support from you at what could be the most critical moment in our history. When Israelis discuss the timing of a possible attack, they often ask: If Obama wins the election, should we hit Iran before January?
True, you told AIPAC that "we should take no option, including military action, off the table." But that was the one moment in your speech that failed to convince. Last December you appeared to endorse the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), which broadly hinted that Iran may not be seeking a nuclear bomb after all — a claim that may have soothed Americans worried about Dick Cheney launching another preemptive war, but appalled not only Israeli intelligence but also French and British intelligence (and that has since been at least partially retracted). In the Iowa debate, you responded to a question about the NIE by stating that "it's absolutely clear that this administration and President Bush continues to not let facts get in the way of his ideology...They should stop the saber-rattling, should have never started it, and they need now to aggressively move on the diplomatic front."
From where Israelis sit, it's clear that Iran temporarily suspended its weaponizations program — which is, in fact, the least important part of its effort to attain nuclear power — for the same reason that Muamar Qadaffi abandoned his nuclear program: fear of America after the Iraq invasion. A senior European Union official told me last year how grateful he was to America and Israel for raising the military threat against Iran. "You make our job easier," he said, referring to European-Iranian negotiations.
I am convinced that you regard a nuclear Iran as an intolerable threat, as you put it to AIPAC, and that, under your administration, negotiations with Iran would be coupled with a vigorous campaign of sanctions. And you've made the convincing argument that you could summon international goodwill far better than the current administration. No nation would be more relieved by an effective sanctions campaign than Israel. We know what the consequences are likely to be of an attack on Iran — retalitory missiles on Tel Aviv, terrorism against Jewish communities abroad, rising anti-semitism blaming the Jews for an increase in oil prices.
We worry, though, that the sanctions will be inadequate and that the Iranians will exploit American dialogue as cover to complete their nuclearization. Unless stopped, Iran's nuclear program will reach the point of no return within the early phases of the next administration. We need to hear that under no circumstances would an Obama administration allow the Iranian regime to go nuclear — that if sanctions and diplomacy fail, the U.S. will either attack or else support us if we do.
The rise of Hamas has only confirmed what Israelis have sensed since the violent collapse of the peace process in September 2000: that the Palestinian national movement is dysfunctional. The bitter joke here is that we're well within reach of a two-state solution — a Hamas state in Gaza and a Fatah state in the West Bank.
In your speech to AIPAC, you intuited an understanding of the Israeli psyche — hopes for peace, along with wariness. But our wariness isn't only a response to terrorism. More profoundly, we fear being deceived again by wishful thinking, by our desperation for peace, as we allowed ourselves to be during the years of the Oslo process. At that time, many Israelis began a painful, necessary process of self-reckoning, asking ourselves the crucial question of how Palestinians experienced this conflict, in effect borrowing Palestinian eyes. Many of us forced ourselves to confront the tragedy of a shattered people, one part dispersed, another part occupied, yet another uneasy citizens in a Jewish state.
Most of all, we allowed ourselves the vulnerability of hope. We lowered our guard and empowered Yasser Arafat, convincing ourselves that he had become a partner for peace. The subsequent betrayal wasn't Arafat's alone: Even now Fatah continues to convey to Palestinians the message that Israel is illegitimate and destined to disappear. Many Israelis have become so wary of being taken for fools again — which this generation of Jews had vowed would never happen to us — that talk of hope seems like unbearable naivete.
Most Israelis want a solution to the Palestinian problem as keenly as does the international community, and understand, no less than our critics abroad, that the occupation is a long-term disaster for Israel. The Israeli irony is that we have shifted from dreading the creation of a Palestinian state to dreading its failure. Fulfilling the classical Zionist hopes for a democratic Israel with a Jewish majority, at home in the Middle East and an equal member of the international community, ultimately depend on resolving the Palestinian tragedy. The Jewish return home will not be complete until we find our place in the Middle East.
But empowering the Palestinians requires renewing the trust of the Israeli public toward them. And that, in turn, requires some sign from Palestinian leaders that Israel's legitimacy is at least being debated within Palestinian society rather than systematically denigrated. Repeating a commitment to "peace" is meaningless: Peace, after all, can include a Middle East without a Jewish state.
For many years, Israelis denied the right of the Palestinians to define themselves as a nation, considering Palestinian nationalism an invention by the Arab world to undermine Israel. We experienced our conceptual breakthrough in the 1990s. Now it's the Palestinians' turn. Admittedly, Israelis, as the powerful protagonists, could more readily develop a nuanced understanding of the conflict. Psychologically, though, we too are the underdog: Israel may be Goliath to the Palestinian David, but we are David to the Arab world's (and Iran's) Goliath. We cannot empower the Palestinians while fearing our consequent diminishment.
You can be a crucial voice in encouraging the transformation of Palestinian consciousness. Perhaps parts of Palestinian society and of the broader Arab world would be able to hear from you what it cannot hear from us: that the Jews aren't colonialist invaders or crusaders but an indigenous people living in its land. Perhaps you can help the Middle East reconcile itself to our existence, and in so doing, help us complete our return home.
As you go through the requisite visits to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and the President's House, the Israeli public will be hoping to hear, beyond affirmations of your commitment to Israeli security, that America under President Obama will understand what maintaining that security involves. We hope that you will insist on a peace based on acceptance of the permanent legitimacy of a Jewish state, and on a Middle East free of the apocalyptic terror of a nuclear Iran. We, too, need the hope that you have promised America.
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JWR contributor Yossi Klein Halevi is a contributing editor of The New Republic, from where this appears, and a senior fellow at the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies of the Shalem Center in Jerualem. He is author of At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew's Search for Hope with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land.