Behind official congratulations — and a recognition that some 78 percent of American Jews voted for Barack Obama — Israel reacted with a mix of fear and unease over the new president-elect Wednesday.
Topping the list of concerns was speculation about how an Obama administration would react to an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, possibly in the first quarter of next year, if no progress is made in international monitoring.
“No declaration of support and no promising statements can diminish the fear many Israelis have of U.S. President-elect Barak Obama,” Aluf Benn, one of the country’s leading pundits, wrote in the newspaper Haaretz.
Quoting several unnamed, ordinary Israelis who are suspicious of Obama because of his Islamic-sounding name and liberal international ties, Benn wrote Wednesday that “these people identify Obama, black and bearing Hussein as a middle name, as a supporter of the oppressed in Third World countries, and fear that he will automatically side with the Palestinians.”
Unnamed officials cited by Army Radio and other Israeli media outlets also expressed anxiety Wednesday that Obama's ascendance will enhance the greatest current existential threat facing the Jewish state: the Iranian nuclear program. Others, though, pointed out that the country has long held a “special relationship” with both Republican and Democratic presidents.
It didn’t help matters that on Tuesday Israel saw its worst outbreak of violence in five months with Palestiniansin Gaza. Following a counter-terror raid by the Israeli military, Palestinians fired some 40 rockets into areas of southern Israel.
The country is also facing its own contentious national elections in February 2009. Opinion polls show center-left Kadima Party leader Tzipi Livni and conservative Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu in a tight race. A poll in the Haaretz newspaper on Oct. 31 showed Likud and Kadima each winning 31 seats in the 120-seat parliament.
While Livni, currently the foreign minister of Israel, is considered more likely to be a good fit for the Obama administration, the hawkish Netanyahu is a former prime minister who many Israelis feel won’t give in to a U.S. push to accommodate Palestinians or negotiate with Iran.
"You and the American people have brought about a historic change," Netanyahu wrote in a statement congratulating Obama Tuesday night. "You've reminded the world of what the U.S. symbolizes — the hope and promise of a better future."
Obama's much-stated goal to engage in direct negotiations over Iran’s drive to enrich uranium to produce nuclear weapons could limit Israel's option to use military force to block the program. His other pledge to be actively involved in peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians could result in pressure against settlement-building and travel restrictions on the Palestinians in the West Bank.
There is no consensus in Israel over either of these issues. Its outgoing prime minister, Ehud Olmert, has said the Jewish state must give up parts of Jerusalem and the West Bank to form a lasting peace with the Palestinians. But Netanyahu and his right-wing allies reject many of these positions.
Moreover, Obama’s Jewish American supporters don’t fall into any easy left-right divide on Israel. Supporters like Martin Peretz, the publisher of the liberal New Republic magazine, is a staunch hawk when it comes to attacking Iran. Other American liberals often side with Israel’s right in refusing to give up any part of Jerusalem to the Palestinians.
“There could be more pressure on Israel to take more risks, like removing security checkpoints in the West Bank,” Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv, told Bloomberg News. “The Iranians will exploit Obama's willingness to talk to them to play for time.'”
But Binyamin Ben-Elieze, a former brigadier general and a minister in the current government told The Jerusalem Post: "Any experience we have had with an American president, Democrat or Republican, has been good — at least it was with former president Bill Clinton and outgoing President George W. Bush.
“I think that if Barack Obama is elected, Israel has no reason to fear. We should welcome any elected president... Our experience proves that in all cases when Israel feared a new elected American president, we received better treatment than we expected," Ben-Eliezer said.
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