Don't Be Afraid of the Jews

The meaning of Obama's promise for a "breakthrough" is a real and continuous effort, no longer countless trips for photo-ops.

At the end of last February, when Barack Obama's race against Hillary Clinton was at its height and the White House still seemed quite distant, the Illinois senator appeared before members of Cleveland's Jewish community and told them: "I think there is a strain within the pro-Israel community that says unless you adopt an unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel that you're anti-Israel...." Obama added that if we do not replace this faulty attitude with honest dialogue, we will not be able to move ahead.

Less than three months later, in an interview with the online version of The Atlantic, the young senator said he did not intend to stick blindly to the American Jewish community's hawkish positions just because it was the politically safe place to be. Between the lines you could sense a barb at the Clintons, who turned their back on the Israeli and Palestinian peace camps and became the darlings of conservative Jewish lobbyists.

The remarks of the Democratic then-candidate actually recall the policy of an earlier Republican candidate who dared challenge the hawkish Jewish camp's wheeler-dealers. That happened 16 years ago at the height of the elder George Bush's second bid for the White House. He refrained from taking part in the theater of the absurd, whereby the United States was dragging the Arab countries to the center stage of the Madrid peace conference, while behind the scenes the settlements were flourishing. He demanded that then-prime minister Yitzhak Shamir choose between settlements and economic aid for the absorption of immigrants from the Soviet Union.

The Likud government set the Jewish community and Democratic Congress against the Republican administration, and brought relations with it to a low point. This crisis was one of the factors that led to the end of the right's rule here, and paved the way from Madrid to Oslo. The conflict between the Israeli government and Jewish organizations (not necessarily the Jewish community) gnawed away at support for Bush in key states, particularly Florida. There is a theory that George W. Bush learned his lesson from the sour grapes the Jews (and the Christian right) fed his father. In his eight years in office, the poodle of Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert in the White House made do with an occasional bark, while settlers' mobile homes continued to pass unhindered to outposts in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Obama has nothing to fear from the right-wing Jewish lobby (not to mention the Christian right). Despite his frank remarks about American policy in the Middle East - "Settlements ... are not helpful. My interest is in solving this problem not only for Israel but for the United States" - Obama won the Jewish electorate's sweeping support (78 percent). Even John McCain's pledge to move the American Embassy to Jerusalem did not sway the small community from its traditional support for Democratic candidates. Last week's election proved again that domestic issues are of greater interest to American Jews than relations with Israel. The group that believes that territories are more important than peace is negligible.

In contrast to the first president Bush, most of Washington's power centers will stand beside the first black president: The two houses of Congress have Democratic majorities, the press is in love, and there's a bonus - the new Jewish lobby, a counterweight to AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. The lobby, known as J Street, raised voices and contributions for Congressional candidates who declared not only their sympathy for Israel but also for active American involvement in the Middle East peace process. At least 31 candidates adopted by the organized Jewish peace camp defeated their opponents. The concept "friend of Israel," which had become a synonym for supporters of perpetuating the occupation, has begun to take on new meaning.

Obama therefore has no domestic political reason to run from the Israeli-Arab conflict or to erase the declaration he made during his visit to Amman in July. The man who galloped to the White House on the horse of "change" pledged a change in the administration's involvement in the peace process. He said that "my goal is to make sure that we work, starting from the minute I'm sworn into office, to try to find some breakthroughs." The meaning of "breakthrough," according to his statements at the beginning of his campaign in the lion's den of AIPAC's Chicago chapter, is a real and continuous effort, no longer countless trips for photo-ops. This chip will be cashed in.