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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Is Obama a 'strong friend' of Israel?

Writing in today's Jerusalem Post, Congressman Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) attacks my friend and colleague Marc Zell for an article Marc published last week about Democratic Presidential candidate Barack (it's not politically correct to say Hussein) Obama:
Barack Obama's record speaks for itself. He has longstanding support among the Jewish community in Illinois, who know first hand his unshakable commitment to Israel's security. In the US Senate, he has established himself as a strong friend of Israel. As a candidate, he has made clear his commitment to deepen the US-Israel relationship and to defend Israel's security as a Jewish state.

Yet Senator Obama is still the target of poorly sourced smears and innuendo, often anonymously circulated in mass e-mails. Sadly, these baseless attacks have been transformed into official Republican talking points. In his February 21, 2008 JPost.com op-ed ("Obama and the Jews") Marc Zell, the Co-Chairman of Republicans Abroad in Israel, compiled a greatest hits of fiction and distortion about Barack Obama culled from one false email after another.
Wexler goes on to try to answer several points that have been used to attack Obama. But I'd like to note two points that Wexler does not address that are among the most troublesome about Obama. The first is Obama's relationship with Ali Abunimah, one of the founders of the Electronic Intifada - an anti-Israel and anti-Semitic hate site - who had the following to say about Obama:
Ali Abunimah gives us a hint of where Obama's real loyalties may lie:
The last time I spoke to Obama was in the winter of 2004 at a gathering in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood. He was in the midst of a primary campaign to secure the Democratic nomination for the United States Senate seat he now occupies. But at that time polls showed him trailing.

As he came in from the cold and took off his coat, I went up to greet him. He responded warmly, and volunteered, "Hey, I'm sorry I haven't said more about Palestine right now, but we are in a tough primary race. I'm hoping when things calm down I can be more up front." He referred to my activism, including columns I was contributing to the The Chicago Tribune critical of Israeli and US policy, "Keep up the good work!"
And Abunimah suggests that Obama's courting of Israel supporters is insincere and just a matter of electoral convenience:
But Obama's gradual shift into the AIPAC camp had begun as early as 2002 as he planned his move from small time Illinois politics to the national scene. In 2003, Forward reported on how he had "been courting the pro-Israel constituency." He co-sponsored an amendment to the Illinois Pension Code allowing the state of Illinois to lend money to the Israeli government. Among his early backers was Penny Pritzker -- now his national campaign finance chair -- scion of the liberal but staunchly Zionist family that owns the Hyatt hotel chain. (The Hyatt Regency hotel on Mount Scopus was built on land forcibly expropriated from Palestinian owners after Israel occupied East Jerusalem in 1967). He has also appointed several prominent pro-Israel advisors.

Obama has also been close to some prominent Arab Americans, and has received their best advice. His decisive trajectory reinforces a lesson that politically weak constituencies have learned many times: access to people with power alone does not translate into influence over policy. Money and votes, but especially money, channelled through sophisticated and coordinated networks that can "bundle" small donations into million dollar chunks are what buy influence on policy. Currently, advocates of Palestinian rights are very far from having such networks at their disposal. Unless they go out and do the hard work to build them, or to support meaningful campaign finance reform, whispering in the ears of politicians will have little impact. (For what it's worth, I did my part. I recently met with Obama's legislative aide, and wrote to Obama urging a more balanced policy towards Palestine.)

If disappointing, given his historically close relations to Palestinian-Americans, Obama's about-face is not surprising. He is merely doing what he thinks is necessary to get elected and he will continue doing it as long as it keeps him in power. Palestinian-Americans are in the same position as civil libertarians who watched with dismay as Obama voted to reauthorize the USA Patriot Act, or immigrant rights advocates who were horrified as he voted in favor of a Republican bill to authorize the construction of a 700-mile fence on the border with Mexico.
Is Obama pro-Israel or is he looking to get elected? And if he's looking to get elected, will he have to be as pro-Israel on a national scale as he would have to be to stand a chance in the Jewish suburbs of Chicago? Clearly not.
The second point that Wexler does not address is Samantha Power. Wexler goes through the usual list of suspects whose names have been mentioned as being part of Obama's foreign policy team (Brzezinski, Malley, Lake and Susan Rice) and either claims that they are not on the team or that their advice has been 'unsolicited.' Power's name isn't even mentioned. Power - a professor at Harvard - actually does work for the Obama campaign and may be Obama's national security adviser. Here's how Power said she would advise 'the President' if she were his national security adviser:
This is from Noah Pollak writing at Contentions:

A follow-up to my post yesterday about the troubling views of one of Barack Obama’s top foreign policy advisers, Samantha Power. In 2002 she sat for an interview with Harry Kreisler, the director of the Institute for International Studies at Berkeley. Kreisler asked her the following question:

Let me give you a thought experiment here, and it is the following: without addressing the Palestine - Israel problem, let’s say you were an advisor to the President of the United States, how would you respond to current events there? Would you advise him to put a structure in place to monitor that situation, at least if one party or another [starts] looking like they might be moving toward genocide?

Get a load of Power’s response:

What we don’t need is some kind of early warning mechanism there, what we need is a willingness to put something on the line in helping the situation. Putting something on the line might mean alienating a domestic constituency of tremendous political and financial import; it may more crucially mean sacrificing — or investing, I think, more than sacrificing — billions of dollars, not in servicing Israel’s military, but actually investing in the new state of Palestine, in investing the billions of dollars it would probably take, also, to support what will have to be a mammoth protection force, not of the old Rwanda kind, but a meaningful military presence. Because it seems to me at this stage (and this is true of actual genocides as well, and not just major human rights abuses, which were seen there), you have to go in as if you’re serious, you have to put something on the line. [Emphasis mine. CiJ]

Just so we’re clear here: Power said that her advice to the President would be to 1) “Alienate” the American Jewish community, and indeed all Americans, such as evangelical Christians, who support the state of Israel, because 2) Israeli leaders are “destroying the lives of their own people.” 3) Pour billions of dollars of the taxpayers’ money into “the new state of Palestine”; 4) Stage an American ground invasion of Israel and the Palestinian territories — what else can she mean by a “mammoth protection force” and a “military presence” that will be “imposed” by “external intervention”? — in order to do the exact same thing that she considers the height of arrogance and foolishness in Iraq: an American campaign to remake an Arab society.

Note that this wasn’t her response to a question about her personal views of the conflict, or about what she envisions might be a utopian solution to the conflict; it was a response to a question about what she would tell the President of the United States if she was his adviser. Yesterday Barack Obama took a large stride toward the presidency–helped in some small measure by the speeches on behalf of the Obama campaign that Power has delivered–and it is time that someone asked him, while he is still a candidate, what he thinks of the perverse things his many foreign policy advisers have said about Israel and the Middle East.

Wexler ignores these points because he has no answer to them. Instead, he personally attacks Zell.
Unfortunately, Zell is more interested in using falsehoods to win an election than standing up for Israel and American-Israeli relations. But across America, Jewish voters have had no trouble sorting out fact from fiction, and have found no cause to shy away from supporting Barack Obama. Indeed, they are rallying to his campaign in ever-growing numbers, inspired by his leadership, judgment, and the possibility he represents for truly transformational leadership. Nothing that Marc Zell says can change that.
Zell, who lives in a Jewish town in Judea, is nothing if not an advocate for Israel and an American patriot. He has lived in Israel for nearly twenty years and spends much of his law practice on a who's who of clients who are involved in Israel advocacy (I'll throw out just one example: MEMRI). To accuse Marc of being more interested in using falsehoods to win an election than in standing up for Israel and American-Israeli relationships is a charge that is simply beyond absurd.

Does Wexler have an answer to the two points he skipped? I doubt it. Would Wexler vote Republican if he were convinced that the Democratic candidate would sell Israel down the river? I doubt that too. So who is he to criticize Marc Zell?


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