Friday, November 07, 2008

Obama's Agenda, Mazal Tov, Obama, Rabin + 13, America Decides, Meretz

Below is a 'wrap' for the week of Nov. 2-7

Obama's agenda

The challenges facing President-elect Barack Obama are formidable. He will inherit a $1 trillion budget deficit on top of a $10.5 trillion national debt, plus responsibility for steering America through the global economic crisis.

He becomes commander-in-chief with the US at war in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has pledged to wind down Operation Iraqi Freedom within 16 months while intensifying Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.

There will, moreover, be frayed relations with the EU to repair; a resurgent Russia to contend with, and Guantanamo Bay to shut down. He'll also need to cajole China toward being a more responsible international citizen and grapple with endemic violence and instability in Sudan, Congo and Zimbabwe.

Obama has promised as well to take a fresh look at what more America could be doing on climate change. And, neither last nor least, he will need to verify that North Korea really is shutting down its nuclear weapons program.

At home, the challenges are no less daunting. Obama will have to oversee the rescue of a sick economy which has lost hundreds of thousands of jobs; and he'll need to prevent millions of people who are defaulting on their mortgages from losing their homes, with unemployment levels hovering around 6.3% and forecast to rise.

EVEN WITH so much on his plate, there's no avoiding the Middle East - either because some flare-up will demand his attention, or because of the alluring temptation to go down in history as the president who finally - finally - brokered the deal that gave the Palestinian Arabs a state and delivered Israel from decades of terrorism.

Obama's secretary of state may feel drawn to fast-track the Israel-Syria peace negotiations, seeing a deal there as low-hanging fruit.

But we think Obama can be smarter than his predecessors by homing in on this harsh Middle East peacemaking reality: As long as the Islamic Republic of Iran remains on the ascendant, there will be no peace between Israel and the Palestinians, no way to bolster Palestinian moderates by chipping away at the rejectionists, no treaty with Syria, and no prospect of saving Lebanon.

So rather than going down the fruitless path taken by many of his predecessors, Obama might want to begin with a different set of assumptions:

Since 1979, the chief obstacle to peace in the Middle East has been Iran. Break its stranglehold, and you pave the way toward progress on all peace-making fronts.

No one need convince Israel that peace with the Palestinians is in its interest. Yet a deal that does not allow Israel to retain strategic settlement blocs will come back to haunt the friends of peace. The Obama administration thus needs to embrace President George W. Bush's 2004 letter to premier Ariel Sharon acknowledging that changes on the ground have made returning to the pre-1967 armistice lines unrealistic.
YET THIS is not an argument against talking to Iran. What matters is what America talks to Iran about and the environment in which "unconditional" talks take place.

The talks need to be aimed at persuading Iran to abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons. But talking is not an end itself. Absent real leverage, US negotiators will not get the regime's undivided attention. We know this because the EU - with American support - has been negotiating with Iran for years, to no avail. Bilateral talks between Washington and Teheran need to be accompanied by draconian sanctions led by the US and EU; and the threat of the military option if all else fails must be more than perfunctory.

Even without weapons of mass destruction, Iran is an intimidating and destabilizing force, sowing havoc from Beirut to Buenos Aires. It provides the financial and military wherewithal and diplomatic cover that enable Hamas's continued control over Gaza and Hizbullah's domination of Lebanon.

Clearly, Barack Obama is too smart, too pragmatic to genuinely expect that talk alone will convince a bellicose, fanatical and messianic regime with imperial ambitions beyond our region to abandon its nuclear weapons program.

Whatever his game plan, if he wants to help foster the normalized relations Israel seeks with its Arab neighbors his administration will first have to sideline the region's number-one obstacle to peace.

Mazal tov, Obama

Just as the people of the United States were electing Barack Hussein Obama as their next president, Hamas was putting the finishing touches on a plot to abduct Israeli soldiers and break the relative cease-fire which has prevailed for the past five months.

Its engineers constructed a 250-meter tunnel from Gaza into Israel. IDF
intelligence assessed that the preparations posed an immediate danger and special forces were sent in to conduct a pinpoint operation to demolish the tunnel. Six Palestinian Arab gunmen were killed; six of our soldiers were wounded.

Hamas responded to Israel's preemptive strike by launching dozens of mortars and rockets into southern Israel hitting, among other targets, downtown Ashkelon.

Prior to the clash, and out of the blue, Mohammed Deif, Hamas's chief bombmaker "emeritus" had warned of a strike against the "Zionist enemy."

Even as Hamas-controlled Gaza, fueled by religious fanaticism and mired in the culture of victimization, pursued its predictable violent trajectory - 6,000 miles away, the splendor of peaceful change, representative democracy and political civility was on display for all to see.

FORTY YEARS after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King, the United States of America elected a black man as president. For many of his supporters, the biracial Obama embodies an 21st century ideal: post-racial, post ideological and post-cynical.

John McCain's loss was not hard to foresee. Hampered by having to campaign as the standard-bearer of a GOP whose incumbent president remains profoundly unpopular, his campaign was just picking up steam when the global financial meltdown struck. It was also his bad luck to face an extraordinarily appealing opponent whose personal story and charisma proved insurmountable.

Israelis can learn from how Obama and McCain reacted to the election results. In a gracious concession speech, McCain remarked that, "A century ago, president Theodore Roosevelt's invitation of Booker T. Washington to dine at the White House was taken as an outrage in many quarters... America today is a world away from the cruel and frightful bigotry of that time."

He continued: "Senator Obama and I have had, and argued, our differences, and he has prevailed. No doubt many of those differences remain. These are difficult times for our country. And I pledge to him tonight to do all in my power to help him lead us through the many challenges we face."

Earlier, Obama received a friendly congratulatory phone call from President George W. Bush.

Such classy behavior stands in sharp contrast to the deportment of many an Israeli politician who, confronted by defeat, goes off and sulks. Granted, Israel's proportional system does not foster absolute winners. Still, where is it written that competing politicians should treat each other with unrelenting disdain?

OBAMA garnered roughly 52% of the popular vote (with a projected 338 electoral college votes) against McCain's tally of 47% (and 161 in the electoral college). Obama also helped propel his party to victory in the House of Representatives where, with some races still outstanding, Democrats picked up 18 seats giving them at least a 252-173 majority.

With most senate races decided, Democrats have captured five places and appear to hold a 56-seat majority.

Exit polls show that Obama garnered 43% of the Caucasian vote, plus a majority of African American (95%), Asian (62%) and Hispanic (66%) voters. He lost Protestants (45%), but carried Catholics (53%) and Jews overwhelmingly (78%).

In claiming victory before tens of thousands of supporters, some of them teary-eyed, Obama praised McCain's devotion to America and took cognizance of the challenges the country faces: Two wars, a planet in environmental peril, the global economic crisis, terrorists - whom he pledged to defeat - and frayed alliances.

Then he called for sacrifice and patriotism, concluding: "And to those Americans whose support I have yet to earn, I may not have won your vote tonight, but I hear your voices. I need your help. And I will be your president, too."

THOSE in our part of the world dedicated to rejectionism, violence and terror will soon discover anew that the relationship between Washington and Jerusalem is above partisanship. And the members of the new administration will see with their own eyes that no one wants peace more than Israel. No one.

Congratulations President-elect Obama on a historic victory. Godspeed.

13 years unhealed

Thirteen years after the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, both the Left and the Right have embraced a single corrosive motto: "Never forget, never forgive." If they persist, our Zionist enterprise is at risk.

The Left appropriated Rabin's memory, distanced it from the nation as a whole, and exploited it for partisan ends. Rabin's murder was held over the heads of everyone who opposed Oslo.

The Right closed its mind to the possibility that, maybe, just maybe, even if unintentionally, its leaders said things that contributed to the atmosphere which set the stage for the killing.

Time has not healed our nations wounds. Instead, we've spent the past 13 years locked into "never forget, never forgive."

In the time leading up to the murder, Israel was riven by political strife and buffeted by Arab violence. Who remembers that just days before he was killed, Rabin declared that any final deal with the PLO would have to include settlement blocs? Who recalls that it was president Ezer Weizman who challenged the legitimacy of the Oslo II accords, telling Israel Radio: "This is not an agreement. It was passed by one-vote majority. And if that vote hadn't received a Mitsubishi there would not be an agreement."

If only we could turn back the clock. If only Yigal Amir had been apprehended on the night of November 4, 1995, before Rabin finished his address to 100,000 supporters at what was then called Kikar Malchei Yisrael.

It was not to be.

On the morning after the assassination, this newspaper carried a front-page editorial: "The shock is universal. No Israeli, no Jew, no decent human being anywhere can help being shaken to the core, shattered to the depth of his and her soul by the news...

"If the Jewish nation is again unlucky, Rabin's death ...may well be remembered as a blow from which Israel has not recovered... But if the nation is more fortunate ... and reason prevails, the assassination will serve as a reminder that internal violence in the most dangerous enemy...."

We cannot say that reason has prevailed, though it could have. On the day of Rabin's funeral, Rabbi Avraham Shapira, a guiding authority of Gush Emunim, called Amir a murderer lacking in Jewish morality.

Yigal Amir's mother disowned him. The Council of Jewish settlements in Judea Samaria and Gaza rejected him and those who embraced him. Most of Rabin's opponents were genuinely stunned, even broken-hearted.

Yet, from the start, a minority of extremists termed the killing "heavenly retribution."

Exacerbating tensions, his grieving widow blamed not only the killer, but all opponents of Oslo. "There definitely was incitement which was strongly absorbed and found itself a murderer, who did this because he felt he had the support of a broad public with an extremist approach..."

THAT THE Left lacked magnanimity in no way absolves the Right today from excommunicating those fanatics - a small minority of the pro-settler universe - who practice violence or preach perfidy.

A process of demonization is taking place before our eyes. The government - whatever its many faults - and our army are denigrated as "un-Jewish." We watched in shock as Kiryat Arba rabbi Dov Lior compared the actions of the IDF in dismantling the Federman home to the behavior of Nazi soldiers in occupied Poland.

Who on the Right will denounce the rabbi's words?

In recent weeks, masked, rock-throwing, Jewish youths have fought with our soldiers. Who on the Right will denounce this despicable behavior?

We hear that radical parents are teaching their children that IDF soldiers sent to take down illegal structures aren't "real" Jews. Extremists have launched "revenge attacks" against Arabs. Others have prayed for IDF soldiers to be captured, defeated, even killed. Mercifully, at least this has been condemned.

Let no one on the Right wince when security officials warn that an atmosphere is being created that makes another political murder possible.

No matter how passionately Israelis disagree, no matter how high the stakes, we absolutely must contend with one another exclusively within the political arena.

Those determined to wage war on a different plain - imbued by the delusion that they are the last of the Jews - must be socially, politically and religiously isolated first and foremost by supporters of the settlement enterprise.

America decides

The power of an American president, the late political historian Richard E. Neustadt wrote, is not the power to command, but the power to persuade.

As American voters go to the polls Tuesday to elect their country's 44th president, they may want to consider the temperament, character and emotional intelligence of the candidates. How well would either Sen. Barack Obama or Sen. John McCain persuade average citizens, the Congress, media, as well as America's friends abroad, to follow where he leads.

The presidency, as Theodore Roosevelt noted, is a "bully pulpit" - a superb platform from which to advocate an agenda, but not for a president who loses popularity or lacks credibility. Such a president will get little done, notwithstanding his constitutional powers.

That said, there are substantive differences between the candidates. Voters will be galvanized more by the economy and a range of domestic issues than foreign policy.

For instance, Obama would appoint justices to the Supreme Court committed to upholding Roe v. Wade, which essentially decriminalized abortion. McCain promises to work to overturn the 1973 landmark decision. And Republican vice presidential candidate Governor Sarah Palin opposes abortion in all cases including rape and incest, except when a mother's life is in danger.

Obama opposes gay marriage, but also a California proposition to ban it; McCain opposes gay marriage but supports the California effort. On taxes, Obama favors tax cuts for the middle-class workers and would increases taxes for higher earners. McCain pledges to reduce the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 25%.

On foreign policy, Obama opposed the invasion of Iraq and the surge. McCain championed both. Obama pledges to "end the Iraq war responsibly." McCain says US forces have dealt "devastating blows to al-Qaida in Iraq" and would pursue victory. Both would send more troops to Afghanistan.

On Iran, Obama views the regime as a threat to the US and would employ direct diplomacy to persuade Teheran to change its policies. If that didn't work, he says, all options are on the table.
McCain promises to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, has pushed for restricting Teheran's ability to import refined petroleum, and pledges not to talk to the regime without pre-conditions. He's criticized Obama for his willingness to enter into unconditional negotiations.

With regard to negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, Obama would take an activist approach to help reach an agreement, but would not dictate the terms of peace. He says Israel must emerge with secure borders, but has refused to explicitly support the 1967-plus formula which would have Israel retain strategic settlement blocs. Obama says Jerusalem should not be divided and urges the Palestinians to "reinterpret" the "right of return" so that "Israel's identity as Jewish state" is preserved. He supports the security fence.

McCain, like Obama, supports the creation of a Palestinian state. He says he would never force Israel into concessions with anyone that seeks its destruction. He has made no statement on the 1967-plus formula. He's promised to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

OPINION surveys show Obama leading roughly 52%-46%. Obama could win 291 electoral votes to McCain's 163. To turn the situation around, McCain will need to win every state George W. Bush won in 2004 - plus one.

To his everlasting credit, McCain steadfastly refused to play the race card (though, unauthorized, some of his supporters have).
Meanwhile, Americans will also be electing the entire 435-seat House of Representatives and one-third of the Senate. Democrats hold 235 seats and Republicans 199. (One place is vacant.) Thirty-eight races are tossups and could go to the Democrats.

Over in the Senate, both parties hold 49 seats. (Two independents, Joseph Lieberman and Bernie Sanders, caucus with the Democrats.) Democrats are anticipating an outcome that will give them a majority of 56 - or more.

AMERICANS now decide whether to vote "Country First" or "Change We Need." Those who would factor Israel into their decision understand that our preeminent strategic concern is the Iranian threat.

The "best president for Israel" is the man who can best internalize the scale of the Iranian menace, and most effectively persuade Americans - and responsible players in the international community - to stop the mullahs before it's too late.

A place for Meretz

Are we to draw any lessons about the state of Israel's Zionist Left from the back-to-back announcements by former Meretz leader Yossi Beilin and veteran party stalwart Ran Cohen that they are retiring?

Meretz is unlikely to make gains in the February elections over the five seats it currently holds. Never a large party, Meretz held 12 seats in 1992. It's been downhill since.

The party is comprised of the (Marxist Zionist) Mapam - itself an amalgamation of leftist factions - and Shulamit Aloni's Ratz, founded in 1973, to champion civil liberties and dovish policies toward the Arabs. Meretz's forebears also include remnants of a number of radical splinters such as the Communist Party, Haolam Hazeh, Moked, Tchelet Adom and Shelli. A newcomer was Beilin's own Shahar, which he set up after quitting Labor. Finally, two defectors from Yisrael Ba'aliya entered as a faction dubbed the Democratic Choice.

Meretz has been more influential than its numbers alone would suggest because its core ideas were echoed by elements in academia and the media. Its long-standing opposition to a Jewish presence in Judea and Samaria and its anti-settlement oratory have been at least partly mainstreamed. Meretz once stood alone in promoting negotiations with the PLO, a withdrawal to the 1949 Armistice lines, the dismantlement of West Bank settlements and the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Some see the distinctions nowadays between the major parties and Meretz as merely ones of rhetoric. Yet Likud and Kadima arrived at their yet-to-be-explicitly-defined land-for-peace positions as a result of changes on the ground. These were wrought by Oslo and the second intifada. Labor is moving toward the Likud and Kadima by shedding some of its illusions about the nature of a Palestinian polity, and in a common determination to nail-down details of any deal with the Palestinians rather than rely on mutual good-will.

So Meretz's inability to internalize the lessons of the second intifada sets it apart from the Zionist mainstream.

IN THE 2006 elections the party's poor showing undercut Beilin's political stock, forcing him last March to abandon plans to vie again for the leadership. Mild-mannered, stolid, but immovable, Beilin, at 60, caps 20 years as a Knesset member. In interviews over the weekend he cited his greatest accomplishments: "I was one of the first people who formed a lobby to leave Lebanon. I led Oslo and launched the Geneva Initiative."

We do not expect Beilin to agree with us that Oslo was a strategic failure; that the way the IDF pulled out for Lebanon may have set the stage for the Second Lebanon War; and that fears over the EU-funded Geneva Initiative may have impelled Ariel Sharon to move faster on Gaza disengagement then he might have wanted to.

Ran Cohen twice sought the Meretz leadership but was defeated, first by Beilin and then by current party head Haim Oron. At age 69, with 24 years in the Knesset, Cohen can claim a number of bipartisan achievements: he helped pass the law that allows residents in public housing to purchase their apartments, and led the battle for a liveable minimum wage.

Meretz is gearing up for its grueling primary to choose a slate of Knesset candidates. Given its electoral prospects, there are few safe slots up for grabs.

Moreover, the threshold it has set up for MKs who have served for eight years or more is excruciatingly high: They must win the support of at least 60% of the convention delegates.

This criteria forced then-Meretz leader Yossi Sarid to bow out in December 2005 after 32 years of political activism. Beilin and Cohen are victims of this system (which Beilin himself initiated); facing the prospect of being unable to clear the 60% hurdle, both have opted out rather than cap their careers in humiliating defeat.

WHATEVER ITS internal machinations, we believe that Israel's body-politic would be best served with fewer, and less ideologically strident, parties. Were Meretz to join forces with Labor, the smaller party could reinvigorate the latter's social-democratic credentials while Labor could rein in Meretz's more immoderate security positions.

Together, they could present a center-Left alternative favoring religious tolerance, pluralism, civil liberties and a passionate concern for the downtrodden.

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