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Speaking With Obama About Israel

My conversation with the candidate.

One might have thought that the humiliating defeat of Hillary Clinton would suggest that a campaign against Barack Obama should not be based on ridiculous and ridiculously false accusations. Apparently, this is not the lesson John McCain has taken from her loss. In fact, almost as soon as it was apparent that Obama would be anointed in Denver this August, the equally de facto Republican nominee picked up where Hillary left off and went into the fray just as Karl Rove might have scripted it.

What McCain so grimly suggested was that Hamas had actually endorsed Obama as its presidential choice. Now, one could, with much greater justification, have claimed that the Ayatollah Khomeini preferred Ronald Reagan to Jimmy Carter. In any case, the intent of McCain’s attack was perfectly clear: He was scavenging for Jewish votes.

Judging by the latest Gallup Poll, the rewards for McCain’s efforts will be slim. In a one-on-one race, Obama outperforms McCain among Jewish voters 61 percent to 32 percent--a margin that has grown by six percent over the past month. Once Jews hear more from Obama, I predict this margin will grow at a brisk clip.

Last Thursday, Barack Obama and I had a longish telephone conversation. We spoke about the collapse of the social contract that underwrites democratic capitalism, an arrangement that is certainly eroding. We also talked about national security and the neglect of high science for which the country will pay deep into the future. What shall I say? I did not disagree with him on anything, although--here and there--our emphases were different. Obama will be addressing these broader themes in the coming weeks and months. He was actually frustrated by the icky-picky character of the debates which channeled the candidates into differences akin to those that would be considered in meetings of a congressional conference committee resolving differences about legislation between the Senate and the House.

Last on our agenda--but longest--was Israel. He knew my historic concerns. I said that I was pessimistic about the possibilities of peace. He said he was "skeptical." That is exactly the right frame of mind for a president to bring to the 100-year dispute that has eluded the most ingenuous formulas for resolution. It is certainly better than being too optimistic. That was the trap into which Bill Clinton fell. (This was not Obama's observation but mine.) You hit a snag. You put pressure on the party over which you have the most leverage--Israel, in this case--and yet the Palestinians remain recalcitrant, feeling that their real concession was to sit down at a conference table in the first place. Nothing happens. You squeeze a little more out of the Israelis, only to encourage the Arabs to demand more, which they do. 

Ahmed Yousef was the Hamas leader who confessed to liking Obama: "We hope he will win the election." Yousef's illusory hopes clash with some of Obama's putative friends. Rashid Khalidi, for example, heir to Edward Said's intellectually run down turf at Columbia University and a Palestinian moderate, whatever that means, has told The New York Times that he is "unhappy about the positions [Obama] has taken, but I can't say I'm terribly disappointed."  Of course not. He knew that Obama's own personal history and his political convictions predisposed him towards Israel. But Obama has disappointed Hyde Park Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, one of those remaining nudnik Reform clergy who is always pained that, given the distress of the Palestinians, life is too good for the Israelis. He, too, complained to the Times about Obama "play[ing] all those notes right for the Israel lobby."

As if there were no differences among Israel's fervent supporters. Take settlements. There are as many positions on settlements in America as there are in Israel. Obama does not think new settlements are "helpful" to the negotiating process and, by the way, neither does George Bush or Condoleezza Rice, who has been huffing and puffing about this inside Israel and out. I myself think they are very much a side-issue. But the Palestinians must shoulder responsibility for much of the settlement reality: For more than 35 years they rejected all kinds of proposals that would, actually at any point, have put an end to settlement activity, period. The present is the result of their posturing.

This is not, however, the core problem, as Obama clearly grasps. He said to me on Thursday (as he said in Des Moines and in Ohio earlier this year) that there is no question but that there is a strong will to peace in Israel and among the Israelis. What is yet to be proven, Obama believes, is that there is a will, deep and wide, among the Palestinians and in the political class. I repeat myself: I do not believe there is this will. Obama is somewhat skeptical about it but is willing, no, eager to test the proposition. I am glad that he will be in power and not I.

Jeffrey Goldberg has made a big contribution to our understanding of Obama's thoughts and feelings about Israel by publishing the text of his interview with the Democratic nominee on his Atlantic blog. There is something special to this conversation in that Obama talks about his exhilarating experience with American Jews and with their bonds to the dream and realities of Israel. I have experienced some of this myself from Obama, in conversation and in e-mails. This is not just nostalgia, and it is also not about reciprocal fault-finding between African Americans and Jews. It is about a vision of America that stands with its democratic friends abroad without neglecting, as it has so tragically done during these last years, the promises of democracy at home.

Martin Peretz is the editor-in-chief of The New Republic.

By Martin Peretz