Wednesday, January 21, 2009

George W. Bush goes; Barack Obama comes. What does this mean for Israel?

Wednesday -- From Bush to Obama


As we, from 6,000 miles away, watched Barack Obama take the oath of office, promising America's friendship to all those who seek peace, the extraordinary enthusiasm of Americans for their new president, together with the optimism that he can begin to meet the challenges their country faces, draws our admiration and our affection.

The first time the name Barack Obama appeared in the pages of The Jerusalem Post was on July 28, 2004, in a report on the Democratic National Convention which nominated John Kerry. Our correspondent noted that "Barack Obama, a candidate for US Senate from Illinois, has become a star of the Democratic Party" and was scheduled to address the convention. The next day we reported that Obama "energized the crowd with an indictment of the Bush administration's decision to wage war in Iraq."

Obama was elected to the Senate that November. And by the time he made his first trip to Israel in January 2006, the junior senator was already being touted as a possible presidential candidate. He declared his candidacy in Springfield, Illinois, in February 2007, won the Democratic nomination and went on to defeat John McCain to become America's first African American president.

ONE HEBREW tabloid headlined a front-page picture of Obama in English: "Good luck." In truth, beyond wishing the new president well, Israelis are apprehensive over whether he will be not just supportive, but empathetic toward Israel - like George W. Bush.

Yet Israel had plenty of ups and downs with Bush, too.

Shortly after al-Qaida's attack on September 11, 2001, Bush sought support to build an anti-terrorism coalition by emphasizing - Palestinian suicide bombings notwithstanding - that a Palestinian state living alongside a secure Israel was part of his vision of a Middle East peace. He quickly dissociated the war on Islamist terror from Israel's war against Palestinian terror. His administration initially resisted isolating Yasser Arafat; it even opposed Operation Defensive Shield.

Bush eventually figured out that before the Palestinians can create a state they needed an institutional infrastructure and civic-minded technocrats. His administration recruited Salaam Fayad to be the PA's finance, and later prime minister.

Bush will go down in history as the first US president to explicitly call for the creation of a Palestinian state, while urging the Palestinians to reject Arafat's violent ways.

His administration proposed a "road map" aiming to settle the conflict by 2005. In it, the Palestinians committed to an unconditional cessation of violence. Israel promised to dismantle settlement outposts erected since March 2001.

Bush opposed the security barrier. He found nice things to say about the EU-funded Geneva Initiative promoted by Yossi Beilin and Yasser Abd Rabbo, which would have driven Israel back to the 1949 Armistice Lines while obfuscating a resolution of Arab claims for a "right of return."

Though Bush supported disengagement only reluctantly, out of this tentative backing came, potentially, his most important contribution to Israel's security: His April 2004 letter to premier Ariel Sharon acknowledging that "it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949."

In 2007, in the wake of the Iraq War and the need to rebuild support for the US in the Arab world, Bush repackaged the road map as the Annapolis process, setting December 2008 as the new deadline for ending the conflict.

It was under Bush's watch that the disastrous 2003 National Intelligence Estimate was issued, taking the wind out of efforts to isolate Iran. Not only didn't Bush "solve" the Iran nuclear crisis - perhaps because he had overstretched US military resources in Iraq - he also reportedly blocked Israeli efforts to go it alone.

THE LESSON in all this? Israelis would be wise not to panic at the first sign of turbulence in Jerusalem-Washington relations. American interests in the Middle East are not always in harmony with Israel's. But we have every reason to expect that Obama will support the Jewish state in its quest for defensible borders and genuine acceptance by its neighbors.

He knows that this can happen only if Iranian and Arab extremists - charter members of that very "far-reaching network of violence and hatred" he warned against in his inaugural address - are sidelined.

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