By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN
Published: May 18, 2008
Pssst. Have you heard? I have. I heard that Barack Obama once said there has to be “an end” to the Israeli “occupation” of the West Bank “that began in 1967.” Yikes!
Pssst. Have you heard? I have. I heard that Barack Obama said that not only must Israel be secure, but that any peace agreement “must establish Palestine as a homeland for the Palestinian people.” Yikes!
Pssst. Have you heard? I have. I heard that Barack Obama once said “the establishment of the state of Palestine is long overdue. The Palestinian people deserve it.” Yikes! Yikes! Yikes!
Those are the kind of rumors one can hear circulating among American Jews these days about whether Barack Obama harbors secret pro-Palestinian leanings. I confess: All of the above phrases are accurate. I did not make them up.
There’s just one thing: None of them were uttered by Barack Obama. They are all direct quotes from President George W. Bush in the last two years. Mr. Bush, long hailed as a true friend of Israel, said all those things.
What does that tell you? It tells me several things. The first is that America today has — rightly — a bipartisan approach to Arab-Israeli peace that is not going to change no matter who becomes our next president. America, whether under a Republican or Democratic administration, is now committed to a two-state solution in which the Palestinians get back the West Bank, Gaza and Arab parts of East Jerusalem, and Israel gives back most of the settlements in the West Bank, offsetting those it does not evacuate with land from Israel.
The notion that a President Barack Obama would have a desire or ability to walk away from this consensus American position is ludicrous. But given the simmering controversy over whether Mr. Obama is “good for Israel,” it’s worth exploring this question: What really makes a pro-Israel president?
Personally, as an American Jew, I don’t vote for president on the basis of who will be the strongest supporter of Israel. I vote for who will make America strongest. It’s not only because this is my country, first and always, but because the single greatest source of support and protection for Israel is an America that is financially and militarily strong, and globally respected. Nothing would imperil Israel more than an enfeebled, isolated America.
I don’t doubt for a second President Bush’s gut support for Israel, and I think it comes from his gut. He views Israel as a country that shares America’s core democratic and free-market values. That is not unimportant.
But what matters a lot more is that under Mr. Bush, America today is neither feared nor respected nor liked in the Middle East, and that his lack of an energy policy for seven years has left Israel’s enemies and America’s enemies — the petro-dictators and the terrorists they support — stronger than ever. The rise of Iran as a threat to Israel today is directly related to Mr. Bush’s failure to succeed in Iraq and to develop alternatives to oil.
Does that mean Mr. Obama would automatically do better? I don’t know. To me, U.S. presidents succeed or fail when it comes to Arab-Israeli diplomacy depending on two criteria that have little to do with what’s in their hearts.
The first, and most important, is the situation on the ground and the readiness of the parties themselves to take the lead, irrespective of what America is doing. Anwar Sadat’s heroic overture to Israel, and Menachem Begin’s response, made the Jimmy Carter-engineered Camp David peace treaty possible. The painful, post-1973 war stalemate between Israel and Egypt and Syria made Henry Kissinger’s disengagement agreements possible. The collapse of the Soviet Union and America’s defeat of Iraq in the first gulf war made possible James Baker’s success in putting the Madrid peace process together.
What all three of these U.S. statesmen had in common, though — and this is the second criterion — was that when history gave them an opening, they seized it, by being tough, cunning and fair with both sides.
I don’t want a president who is just going to lean on Israel and not get in the Arabs’ face too, or one who, as the former Mideast negotiator Aaron D. Miller puts it, “loves Israel to death” — by not drawing red lines when Israel does reckless things that are also not in America’s interest, like building settlements all over the West Bank.
It’s a tricky business. But if Israel is your voting priority, then at least ask the right questions about Mr. Obama. Knock off the churlish whispering campaign about what’s in his heart on Israel (what was in Richard Nixon’s heart?) and focus first on what kind of America you think he’d build and second on whether you believe that as president he’d have the smarts, steel and cunning to seize a historic opportunity if it arises.