Barack Obama is now like that old soldier in a memorial parade, medals jangling on his chest. Some of the medals belong to America as a whole, symbolizing turning points in the country's history. Others he earned on his own. But most of them are conditional, the kind that hint at great hope for the future but carry a significant fear of disappointment. Obama will not only be the first African-American president of the United States. He has inspired the entire world, which views him as its president - a president responsible for solving all the world's problems: hunger and poverty, capitalism and equality, the status of women and minorities, democracy and the war on terror, and of course the world's violent conflicts. Paradoxically, the world has placed on Obama's shoulders the agenda forged by George W. Bush, with an unlimited demand for success.
The veiled, hopeful gaze toward Obama painfully underscores the gap between what America is capable of and the ankle-deep water that most other countries are floundering in; Israel, for example. It's not just a question of the leadership's quality, but rather the nature of the hopes and anxieties that Obama's election has stirred up. "Is he good for Israel or bad for Israel?" "Is he really pro-Arab or is he leaning toward Islam, or is he a Democrat who put a note between the stones of the Western Wall and visited Sderot?" "Will he free his schedule to address the Arab-Israeli conflict, or will he shove it into the corner, somewhere in the long line of issues after Iraq, Afghanistan, health insurance and the American economy?" "Who will be his secretary of state; that is, who will be the one to put pressure on Israel?" In other words, the people are worried.
Behind these questions is the assumption that only a fresh American president who immediately creates a new agenda can rescue Israel from the quicksand. As if it doesn't matter at all what kind of government Israel has, right-wing or left, Benjamin Netanyahu or Tzipi Livni. Obama is the king of Israel. He'll know what to do and will do it. We can relax.
There has never been a U.S. president whose first days in office have not given rise to immediate, incontrovertible confidence in his ability to end the Arab-Israeli conflict. There has never been a U.S. president who has not come to realize, shortly after taking office, that the problem is not his lack of ability, but the quality of his partners.
"The last few weeks of the Clinton administration, and the short time left before elections are held in Israel, are characterized by a dash toward gaining a draft agreement with [Yasser] Arafat. If such a deal is formulated, its ratification will require the support of the new administrations in Washington and Jerusalem - and it is fair to assume that the Bush administration will not undermine any agreement reached now," stated Haaretz in its editorial on December 15, 2000. "The Israeli public congratulates the new American president, and hopes he will be a good president for his nation and a worthy leader of a superpower. It is hoped that the Bush administration will continue playing an active and energetic role in the diplomatic processes in the Middle East, no matter who is the Israeli prime minister - the incumbent and the one soon to be elected." The hope was dashed, and not only because of Bush.
The exact same words could be written now, changing only the names. Bush, who was dragged into the conflict, and his predecessor, Bill Clinton, who was indefatigable in his efforts to promote the peace process, eventually recognized the limitations of the superpower they headed.
The reverse is true; some of Israel's most significant steps in the peace process were made without U.S. intervention. Washington joined the Oslo Accords only after they were in the works, and Israel renewed the negotiations with Syria in defiance of the U.S. position. On the other hand, Israel preferred to fold up the road map, the product of Bush's vision, and for a long time Israel ignored the Arab initiative, which had the support of the United States. It's not a fresh agenda, political vision or new plan of action that is needed here.
Obama is charming, but he's not a magician. He needs, first of all, a wise and determined Israeli government so he can offer it America's talents and capabilities. He - that is, we - need this kind of leadership, the kind that doesn't read the American pressure gauge each morning but puts forth a plan of action. In Washington the president will change, but the mirror on the wall is in the same place, and it is turned toward Jerusalem.
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