WASHINGTON (JTA) – Barack Obama emerges from a maelstrom into a vacuum.
The U.S. senator from Illinois has survived the longest and roughest election season in memory to assume control of a free world in free fall: A collapsing economy, a resurgent Iran, an obstreperous Russia.
“He’s going to have his hands full with a recession, a housing crisis, Wall Street, domestic legislation, Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran,” said David Makovsky, a senior analyst with the Washington Center for Near East Policy.
Obama garnered 52 percent of the popular vote and 338 electoral votes Nov. 4 to win the presidency following a sometimes bitter campaign against his Republican challenger, U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who picked up 46 percent of the popular vote and 162 electoral votes.
Among Jewish voters, exit polls showed Obama scoring about 78 percent of the vote compared to 22 percent for McCain, surpassing the estimated 75 percent Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) garnered in 2004.
No matter who was elected president, that individual would have to re-accrue the political capital squandered by President Bush in his last years of office, said Steven Spiegel, a political scientist at UCLA. Obama, however, made a better case than McCain, Spiegel said.
“What Obama is really offering is the olive branch in one hand and the other is a fist,” he said.
Conservatives and some Republicans tried to use Obama’s exotic background against him, particularly in the Jewish community. But in the end, voters went with the son of a woman from small-town Kansas and a nominally Muslim father from the Kenyan hills — a choice that some observers say will be likelier to repair relations with an international community alienated by a president who once famously said nations either stand with or against the United States.
“Obama can say ‘I’m a different person with a different approach, we’re going to work with you on global warming, family planning, we’re going to be broader in our approach, we’re not looking for fights with Russia, we have a much more nuanced policy,” Spiegel said.
M.J. Rosenberg, the legislative director of the Israel Policy Forum, which strongly favors an increased U.S. role in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiating process, said Obama’s unlikely path to the presidency was a game-changer when it comes to foreign policy.
“He was elected to the Senate four years ago, he defeated Hillary Clinton, he defeated John McCain, he’s African-American. Because it’s a transformational presidency, he can do things other presidents might not have been able to do,” Rosenberg said.
It is precisely this possibility of possibility that excites or worries Jewish political activists, depending on their political stripes.
Obama’s Jewish backers argue that his victory will provide a significant boost in U.S. credibility and influence that can be used to increase international pressure on Iran and support for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Detractors, on the other hand, have predicted that in his desire to win international respect, Obama could end up pressuring Israel and backing away from confrontation with Iran.
What’s clear, experts say, is that Obama faces an almost unprecedented challenge for a new president. Yoram Peri, a Tel Aviv University political scientist on sabbatical at American University in Washington, described a world facing fundamental historic changes.
“I’m thinking of periods such as after the Second World War when the super powers devised a new world, or the Vienna Congress [of 1814-15 that reconfigured Europe],” he said. “You need a complicated, comprehensive approach to the new situation.”
Don’t worry too much about Obama being “tested” as a young, inexperienced president, as the McCain campaign had charged, said Yitzhak Reiter, a Hebrew University professor who just published War, Peace and International Relations in Islam.
“Being an Israeli, I know that whenever a radical group has a plan in mind and are able to carry it out, they carry it out,” he said. “If they were able to challenge America, they would have done it by now.”
The most serious challenge, Peri said, is the potential of an Iran with nuclear weapons — a possibility that Israel believes could occur within two years.
“It will totally change the balance of power in the Middle East, not just because Iran might use the bomb, but because conventional power has been defined by non-conventional power, the fear that Israel has a nuclear capability,” he said. With a nuclear Iran, “assuming Hezbollah or Syria attacks Israel, Israel will be deterred from deterring them.”
The same goes for Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Persian Gulf states that fear Iranian hegemony.
“The whole balance of power in the conventional sphere changes,” Peri said.
Obama’s likely path may be determined by those who advise him, Peri said, noting the preponderance of Clinton administration veterans who favor diplomatic engagement as the best path for ensuring Israel’s security. For example, in recent months, former U.S. Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross has emerged as Obama’s senior adviser on Israel and Iran, and his top staffer on Jewish issues has been another Clinton-era veteran, Daniel Shapiro.
“The people I know who are surrounding Obama have a more progressive view of the Middle East, want to see a peace between Israel and Palestinians,” Peri said. “They see the differences in the Arab world and understand you have to take into account Arab interests vis-a-vis Iran.”
Ross argues that the United States needs to play a more consistent and involved role in Israeli-Palestinian talks, but he also has ruled out the establishment of any “artificial” timelines for establishing a Palestinian state. On Iran, Ross has echoed Obama in arguing that the United States needs to increase its level of diplomatic engagement with Tehran, but says such an approach must be coupled with tougher sanctions in order to block Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.
Mitchell Bard, the director of the American Israel Cooperative Enterprise and the author of Will Israel Survive?, was heartened by the Obama campaign’s stated intention to make Iran a priority in its first months.
He said Obama’s ability, proven during his campaign, to build alliances across the political spectrum would serve him well.
“He has the personal chemistry, the potential for building relationships,” Bard said, noting that Bush’s first term was well served by the personal relationship he developed with Tony Blair, the British prime minister at the time, despite policy differences.
Spiegel said Obama’s willingness to engage diplomatically suggests he will
succeed where the Bush administration ran into a wall — in building an international alliance to isolate Iran.
“Obama starts out popular, people want to establish good relations,” he said. “It’s going to be much easier to sell sanctions.”
Under those circumstances, Spiegel said, Iran should soon face a ban on imports of refined fuel. Iran, with a refining infrastructure in disarray, relies on imports for 40 percent of its petroleum use. Such a ban, coupled with the decline in the price of crude, should hit the Iranian economy hard.
“If the price of oil is dropping and not rising, and with truly effective sanctions, then you’ve got a much better chance” of getting Iran to stand down from its weapons program, he said.
Obama has said he would couple sanctions with diplomatic outreach as a means of persuading Iran. Makovsky predicted that such an outreach would not occur until after Iranian presidential elections next summer in order not to hand a victory to incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has denied the Holocaust and opposes Israel’s very existence.
If such outreach fails, Makovsky said, an Obama administration will at least have earned greater credibility if it is forced into a military option.
“If those negotiations don’t work, he will have some very tough calls to make, but he will probably believe he is stronger for having made the approach,” he said.
Obama, who emphasized the Iraq quagmire during much of his campaign, until recently was believed to be likelier than McCain to have attempted to reshape the international alignment, tamping down tensions with Russia and refocusing international attention on Islamist extremism in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
That is less likely now with the economic crisis, Peri said.
“Without the economic crisis, I think global issues would have been dealt with sooner,” he said.
Even with narrower expectations, experts agreed that the likeliest beneficiary of Obama’s victory in the Middle East would be Israel-Syria talks. Bush has discouraged this track, and McCain’s campaign suggested he would have continued that policy.
Israel and Syria, having engaged in back-channel talks through Turkey, have all but reached an agreement, including security arrangements, analysts say. Syria is seen as close to agreeing to pull itself out of Iran’s orbit and to cut off terrorist groups. The remaining obstacle is Syria’s desire to get back into the good graces of the United States, something that American hawks have been resisting in part because of Syria’s continued designs on Lebanon.
“It won’t take more than a few months to reach an agreement,” Peri said. “With a green light from the United States, the deal is done.”
Experts disagreed on what the Obama victory means for Israel-Palestinian negotiations. Peri and Makovsky noted the intractability of the Palestinian split between moderates in the West Bank and Hamas terrorists in the Gaza Strip — a balance of power many believe makes the creation of a Palestinian state impossible at this time.
But Rosenberg of the Israel Policy Forum predicted that despite the Palestinian disarray, Obama would press on with the negotiations because the outline of an agreement is known, and achieving it would facilitate every other foreign policy initiative.
“You get a hell a lot of mileage out of getting these two peoples together,” he said. “A president who has the leadership to have a signing ceremony looks like a magician.”
But Obama’s Jewish detractors are concerned. Morton Klein, the president of the Zionist Organization of America, said his group had deep-seated worries about Obama, but as a tax-exempt organization could not speak of them until now.
“We are worried that he will put enormous pressure on Israel to make one-sided concessions to the Palestinian Arabs without demanding that the Palestinian Arabs fulfill their obligations” under peace agreements, Klein said.
Klein cited as a basis for his concerns Obama’s advisers, including Daniel Kurtzer, a former ambassador to Tel Aviv who has counseled pressuring Israel, and friendships with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Rashid Khalidi, all strident critics of Israel.
Regarding Iran, Klein referred to Obama’s pledge last year to meet with Ahmadinejad, saying that “Someone who said he will sit down with this Iranian Hitler, Ahmadinehjad, without preconditions is clearly someone who will not do what needs to be done to prevent nuclear weapons in his hands.”