There have been a number of opinion pieces in the Israeli press arguing that, because Barack Obama has limited experience in the Middle East, there is reason to doubt that he will be a reliable friend of Israel. I think this is faulty reasoning.
Many of the best friends Israel ever had in the White House had even less experience than Obama before being elected to that office. Ronald Reagan had been an actor and a governor who demonstrated little interest in the Middle East before becoming president. Few expected it when he overruled his own advisers to open a revolutionary strategic partnership with Israel, and launched the US-Israel free trade agreement.
Bill Clinton as governor of Arkansas had limited experience in foreign affairs. Not even his closest friends could have predicted the deep partnership he would form with the prime minister of Israel nor the intense personal investment he would make in the search for Middle East peace.
George W. Bush was an oilman and the son of a former president who had many conflicts with Israel. Before he was elected, friends of Israel were uneasy with his close ties to oil companies and some of his father’s unfriendly advisers. But, as president, he followed a very different path from his father, and has come to be considered by many Israelis one of the best friends they ever had. I supported George Bush in 2004 because of his support for Israel, and I support Barack Obama in 2008 because of his.
Israelis and American Jews have a long history of exaggerated fears based on very little, and a long history of being proven wrong. I think we are looking at this phenomenon again today.
IN OBAMA’S case, his past experience in the Middle East is also admittedly limited, but it is by comparison greater than that of Reagan, Clinton and George W. Bush combined at comparable points in their pursuit of the presidency. Obama has been a member of the very substantive Senate Foreign Relations Committee for the past three years, and chairman of its subcommittee on European affairs. In his official capacity, Obama has made three previous trips to the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Africa. including one to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories as well as Kuwait and Iraq in January 2006; a trip to Russia, Ukraine and Azerbaijan focused on strategies to control the world’s supply of conventional weapons, biological weapons and weapons of mass destruction; and one to South Africa, Kenya, Djibouti, Ethiopia and Chad.
At a meeting with Palestinian students two weeks before Hamas won the legislative election in 2006, Obama warned them directly that “the US will never recognize winning Hamas candidates unless the group renounces its fundamental mission to eliminate Israel.”
Unlike Reagan, Clinton, and Bush, Obama can point to many concrete votes on legislation important to Israel. He has gone as far as any candidate in history in innumerable speeches and statements highlighting his commitment to the US-Israel partnership and the security of the Jewish state. Obama’s strong words of support for Israel, especially in his AIPAC speech, were greeted with a harsh response in the Arab world. The New Republic said, “Think the whole world loves Barack? Arab opinion-makers don’t.”
ON IRAN, Obama’s position is firm. He said to AIPAC that “there is no greater threat to Israel – or to the peace and stability of the region – than Iran… The danger from Iran is grave, it is real and my goal will be to eliminate this threat… We will also use all elements of American power to pressure Iran. I will do everything in my power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.” He added for emphasis, “Everything in my power. Everything.”
Obama is the original sponsor of an innovative piece of legislation known as the “Iran Sanctions Enabling Act” supporting divestment of state pension funds from Iran’s oil and gas industry, a very promising new approach. The act creates a federal list of entities that invest in Iran and provides a legal structure for divestment from them to enable investors and state and local governments to ensure they are not invested in companies that support Iran’s oil and gas industry. The goal, said Obama, is “pressuring companies to cut their financial ties with Iran” especially by authorizing state and local governments to divest the assets of their pension funds and other funds under their control from any company on the list. The bill protects fund managers who divest from companies on this list from lawsuits directed at them by investors who are unhappy with the results.
In sum, we have much more reason to have confidence in Obama than we had at a similar stage in the candidacies of the predecessors who made the greatest contributions to the US-Israel relationship.