Friday, August 29, 2008

From Humphrey to Obama

On this day 40 years ago, Hubert H. Humphrey accepted the nomination of the Democratic Party for the presidency of the United States. As rioting raged outside the Chicago convention hall, he began his stirring oratory by citing St. Francis of Assisi: "Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light."

Humphrey, who ultimately lost to Richard M. Nixon, may have been the last instinctive friend of Israel to seek the presidency. It was uncomplicated to be a friend of Israel in 1968, even though Robert F. Kennedy had been assassinated by Sirhan Sirhan, a Palestinian Arab, only weeks earlier.

It was clear in those days that Israel faced an Arab world that refused to accept a Jewish state anywhere in the Middle East; that whatever its blunders, Israel was fundamentally in the right; that Arab diplomacy from the 1917 Balfour Declaration through to the 1967 Arab Summit in Khartoum was nothing but a litany of rejectionism.

On the night Humphrey accepted the nomination, Barack Obama, born August 4, 1961, was seven years old. For Obama's generation, and even more for the ones following it, political, moral or theological certainties about Israel - or about anything else - are passé.

LAST NIGHT, as this newspaper was going to press, it was Obama's turn to accept the Democratic presidential nomination in Denver. Delegates had decamped to the Invesco Field at Mile High stadium so that Obama could speak in front of 75,000 enthusiastic supporters. Sen. Hillary Clinton had earlier moved that the nomination be offered to Obama by acclimation.

In the course of the convention, delegates heard vice presidential nominee Sen. Joe Biden declare that the Bush administration had failed to defeat al-Qaida and the Taliban, "the people who actually attacked us on 9/11," while getting bogged down in the war in Iraq.

They applauded as Bill Clinton declared: "Hillary told us in no uncertain terms that she'll do everything she can to elect Barack Obama. That makes two of us."

The Obama-McCain campaign kicks off in earnest after next week's Republican National Convention, and Israelis have been watching the presidential race with fascination. While the Israel-America relationship is fundamentally solid and bipartisan, Washington and Jerusalem have had their ups and downs in every administration from Harry S Truman to George W. Bush.

We do not take it for granted that both candidates define themselves as friends of Israel - yet friendship has to be backed by substance.

• On Iran, Obama says he does not want Israel to feel as if its "back is against the wall," and wants America "to act much more forcefully." Yet he would also try to talk the mullahs into being better global citizens. What specific steps on Iran would an Obama-Biden administration take in its first six weeks?

• On borders and settlements, this is what Obama told the Post in a July interview here: "Israel may seek '67-plus' and justify it in terms of the buffer that they need for security purposes. They've got to consider whether getting that buffer is worth the antagonism of the other party."

Biden once warned premier Menachem Begin that if Israel did not cease settlement in Judea and Samaria, the US would have to cut economic aid to Israel.

Do Obama and Biden think it is possible to be "pro-Israel" in 2008 while being sanguine over an Israeli withdrawal to the 1949 Armistice Lines? Where does the campaign stand on strategic settlement blocs and a Jewish presence in such Jerusalem neighborhoods as Gilo, East Talpiot and Har Homa?

• On Palestinian refugees, Mahmoud Abbas has called for the "right of return" to Israel proper for the refugees and their descendents. What's the campaign's position?

IT MAY be unrealistic for Israelis to expect that an administration taking office in January 2009 will empathize with Israel the way a 1969 Humphrey White House might have.

But what the Obama-Biden ticket needs to demonstrate is that backing for a secure Israel living within defensible boundaries is as integral to Democrats today as it was when Hubert Humphrey was their standard-bearer.

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