In Israel, for better or (usually) for worse, politics permeates virtually all cultural, religious, and historical events and issues.
So it was surprising that, during the period in May marking the 60th anniversary of Israel's founding, President Bush's gracious remarks to the Knesset (Israel's parliament) were met with tremendous appreciation and warmth across a wide swath of the notoriously broad Israeli political spectrum. I was privileged to witness that reaction in person during the historic festivities in Jerusalem.
While the American commentariat, especially those in the liberal media protective of Sen. Barack Obama, went apoplectic over Bush's comments about appeasing terrorists and their sponsors, Israelis left and right praised his speech to the heavens.
So it was from an interesting perspective, during the Yom Ha'atzmaut (Independence Day) celebrations, that I had occasion to reflect on America's support for the Jewish state, and the questions that have been raised about Obama's positions.
Israel has of late been enduring more than its share of existential angst. Its enemies have been waging low-level military and diplomatic campaigns for years, beginning with the avowedly terrorist Hamas regime in Gaza, which rains often fatal rockets down on Israeli towns on a daily basis, to the rearming and ascendant Hezbollah, which scored a significant victory in the ongoing Lebanese power struggle, to an aggressive Iranian theocracy hell-bent on acquiring the nuclear means to destroy Israeli population centers.
Meanwhile, Israel suffers from a serious, embarrassing problem of its own making: political corruption. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has resigned in the face of allegations that he received tens of thousands of dollars in cash-stuffed envelopes by an American businessman.
Yet somehow, to the untrained eye, all seems better than well in Israel. The joyous Yom Ha'atzmaut celebration marked a major milestone in this young country's development and, knock wood, was unmarred by terrorist violence.
The Israeli economy gallops along at a rapid clip: 5% GDP growth in 2007, and 4% expected this year, despite the global slowdown. Israel is third worldwide only to the U.S. and Japan in patents-per-capita (and, incredibly, 14th overall worldwide in absolute terms); it boasts more scientists and engineers per capita than any other country in the world.
Israel has the second-most startup companies in the world. For the first time in my adult life, the dollar was actually worth fewer Israeli shekels than during my previous visit. Real estate brokers, who for years listed homes in dollars, have now switched to the now-more stable Israeli currency.
Culturally, the country continues to thrive. Jerusalem recently hosted an international writers' festival where leading Israeli scribes hobnobbed with their European and American counterparts. Israel's top basketball team placed second in the European tournament, while an Israeli soccer manager brought the storied English Chelsea franchise within inches of Premier League and Championship League trophies.
Israeli musicians, graphic artists, architects, and even boutique winemakers regularly achieve worldwide acclaim, a theme hammered home by the May issue of the in-flight magazine of El-Al (Israel's national airline), which was dedicated to 60 Israelis who have impacted the world.
The flipside of these achievements, as also apparent from the magazine, is a deep Israeli preoccupation with global approval. The Jewish people, according to the Bible, are meant to be an or la-goyim, a "light unto the nations." The Jewish state, thus, strives to be a model society, setting a good example for a world riven by strife.
Yet its efforts aren't always rewarded by a world still disturbingly hostile to the idea of a Jewish state or by elites in liberal Western countries who believe the country isn't worth the trouble it has begotten.
That's why, by far, the most important and moving part of President Bush's address, one that was little-reported in the Western media, was when he said:
Some people suggest if the United States would just break ties with Israel, all our problems in the Middle East would go away. This is a tired argument that buys into the propaganda of the enemies of peace, and America utterly rejects it. Israel's population may be just over 7 million. But when you confront terror and evil, you are 307 million strong, because the United States of America stands with you.
This strong reassurance from the leader of the free world resonated far more with Israelis than the president's more controversial statement regarding appeasement that immediately preceded it. But, in fact, they're flipsides of the same coin.
Obama, who favors precondition-less talks with Iranian leaders, can't seem to grasp the serious problems infecting his sometimes muddled position—and his campaign lashes out at anyone who dares criticize his approach.
(Obama evidently believes that the threat posed by countries like Iran pales in comparison to that posed by the Soviet Union in its heyday, telling an Oregon primary crowd that "Iran, Cuba, Venezuela, these countries are tiny compared to the Soviet Union. They don't pose a serious threat to us the way the Soviet Union posed a threat to us." He later backtracked, describing the Iranian threat as "grave," but, at least initially, he regarded a growing country of 65 million people, well on its way to acquiring nuclear weapons, as "tiny.")
Obama argues that negotiation is not appeasement. But what exactly does "negotiation" mean in the context of dealing with tyrannical regimes? As Charles Krauthammer observes, "what concessions does Obama imagine Ahmadinejad will make to him on Iran's nuclear program? And what new concessions will Obama offer? To abandon Lebanon? To recognize Hamas? Or perhaps to squeeze Israel?" These are questions that, unbelievably, nobody in the mainstream media is asking.
And it's not as if Iran welcomes talks with the U.S. as an avenue for mutual understanding. As its supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, recently remarked:
You have nothing to say to us. We object. We do not agree to a relationship with you! We are not prepared to establish relations with powerful world devourers like you! The Iranian nation has no need of the United States, nor is the Iranian nation afraid of the United States. We...do not accept your behavior, your oppression and intervention in various parts of the world.
While Obama has vowed to meet with helpful folks like these, he has also resisted meeting with Hamas. But this position lacks intellectual coherence, as Hamas is sponsored by Iran and serves as its Palestinian proxy. The American Spectator's Philip Klein puts its well, asking "why should it be beyond the pale to question the earnestness of Obama's vow not to negotiate with Hamas, when he has promised, as part of his sweeping program for change, to negotiate with its patron [Iran], which shares the same ultimate goal?"
These concerns dovetail with another aspect of Obama's Israel problem: his policy advisers. One of his former counselors, Gen. Merrill McPeak, was revealed to harbor frustrations about powerful pro-Israel voices in the U.S., telling a newspaper that "we have a large vote here in favor of Israel. And no politician wants to run against it." Another, Robert Malley, was exposed as conducting negotiations (albeit not on behalf of the campaign) with Hamas.
When asked whether Jimmy Carter should meet with Hamas during the former president's recent Middle East visit, Obama's initial response was "Why can't I just eat my waffle?"
And in a recent interview with the Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg, after Goldberg had written an article entitled "Is Israel Finished?", Obama—incredibly, while trying to sound like a pro-Israel stalwart—trafficked in the same, tired finger-pointing so often seen among Western liberal elites, characterizing the Israeli-Arab conflict as "this constant wound,...this constant sore, [that] infect[s] all of our foreign policy." This attitude suggests that the United States is abhorred by the Muslim world because of our support for Israel rather than because Islamic extremists detest our values and our way of life. Then, more recently, there was the flap over Obama's now-you-see-it-now-you-don't "support" for Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem.
The outrageous ramblings of Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama's (former) pastor and spiritual advisor, contribute to this sense as well. The good reverend has referred to Israel as "a dirty word" and blamed it for September 11. He offered space in his church's newsletter to a Hamas functionary who, predictably, bashed the Jewish state.
Obama, who has said he occasionally refers to himself as "Baruch Obama" during his interactions with Jewish crowds ("baruch" is Hebrew, and "barack" is Arabic, for "blessed"), has lately made a concerted effort to appeal to the Jewish community, including stops in Florida nursing homes that, according to the New York Times, are populated by hostile residents.
But his relative weakness among a Jewish electorate that's generally in the tank for the Democrats is palpable. A recent Gallup poll that gave Obama 61% support to Sen. John McCain's 32% among Jewish voters was conventionally interpreted, as Gallup's own poll title put it, as "Obama Beats McCain Among Jewish Voters." Yet these numbers are by far the weakest for any Democratic presidential candidate in recent memory. That one in three Jewish Americans say they will vote for the Republican candidate has to be damning; after all, only one in four supported President Bush in 2004, notwithstanding his stalwart support for the Jewish state.
Of course, these numbers will fluctuate over the course of the final few weeks of the general election, and Obama will do his best to blunt their impact. And there's no question that the American Jewish community is not a single-issue voting monolith. But with Israel so much in the news, and so much on the mind, the contrast between Bush's speech and Obama's position couldn't be clearer.
Michael M. Rosen, TCS Daily's intellectual property columnist, is an attorney and Republican activist in San Diego.