Undivided Attention

Barack Obama’s speech at AIPAC was so winning, and his applause so warm, that it may be easy to overlook what a complicated task he had. (You may watch the video here.)

AIPAC is nothing if not sensitive to what Israeli élites think and say. For several weeks now, the Israeli press has been oddly condescending toward him. A Haaretz review of Dreams From My Father focused on, of all things, the question of whether a 33 year-old could have “total recall,” implying that authoring the book was a crafty anticipation of his run. Along the same lines, the curvy, sababa young anchor, who just took over at Channel One, made a show of her exasperation for Obama’s (mis)remembered story of his great-uncle being stricken with grief after liberating Auschwitz. The camp he really liberated was—here she raised a knowing, gorgeous eyebrow—Buchenwald.

As if most of her Tel-Aviv pals have a clue where these camps were or who liberated what. As if they know South Dakota from South Carolina, Michael Schwerner from James Earl Ray—as if they don’t think that Jim Crow is a bourbon.

THEIR REAL PROBLEM with Obama, of course, is that he has had the brass to insist on persistent diplomacy, not military action, against Iran. He would meet with Iranian officials and even lessen sanctions if they played ball. Israelis are not persuaded. Many would like to see a strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities before Bush leaves office, or at least they think they would, or want a president who at least entertains the idea, which they imagine (rashly) can be something clean and decisive, like the strike against Iraq in 1981, or the one on Syria last year.

Obama has spoken of America’s power to attract over its power to deter, the building of alliances over unilateral military attacks, the need (even Iran’s need) to globalize economically, and, in any case, America’s need to stop bleeding treasure in far away places. McCain says he will be the Jihadist’s worst nightmare. Obama reminds us that the war McCain supports has been their dream come true.

But ever since Rabin endorsed Nixon in 1972, most Israelis—even those on the center-left—have felt fine with tough talk from Republicans, the more rock-ribbed, the better. They’ve loved Bush for applying the lessons of Munich, even if his history comes in PowerPoint. They’ve liked Americans who know in their gut that the only thing those others understand is force. (If there is nuance in the region—honor cultures, Islamic theology, insider political intelligence, etc.—Israeli experts want to be relied on to tell, not just AIPAC, but all of Washington, what to think.)

OBAMA IS ALSO an African-American with a hybridized identity, indeed, a fierce cosmopolitan, the kind of person Jews ordinarily love, but whose election would not quite fit the nationalist logic Israelis think vaguely consistent with Zionism. Virtually all my Israeli friends, young and old, smart and smarter, have been willing to bet me that Americans are “not ready for a black president.” Apparently most Israelis are not—not this man, no matter how many times, or how sincerely, Obama speaks of Jewish victimization, or Jewish support for civil rights, or his love for Philip Roth’s and David Grossman's books, or his Zionist camp counselor.

The reasons are many. Israelis instinctively fear charismatic leaders whipping up distant audiences. Or is it that Obama is tapping a pure strain of optimism that, as he told some young people after his speech, should make cynicism seem negotiable? When the Israeli press repeats, again and again, how “inexperienced” Obama is, this is code for their fears, the saddest of which is the fear of hoping for peace again.

In the back of their minds they fear that two generations of special pleading—about how Israel’s occupation should be rationalized as the Jews’ special need to (how does Prof. Yehezkel Dror put it?) “subordinate morality to survival”—may not quite work on Obama, much the way it did not work on Kissinger. Obama has heard Jabotinsky-like apologetics for victim exceptionalism from the Sharptons—indeed, from the Wrights—for two generations. It takes one to know one. The most frightening question is this: if democracy makes a black man a mainstream American, can it also make an Arab a mainstream Israeli?

So there is a peculiarly Israeli condescension for Obama just now, which I predict will dissipate as he grows in stature, and the world he is sketching feels more imminent. It is the same condescension most have, since Oslo, for people who trusted Arabs, or still trust politicians, or stop for pedestrians, or think voters are not just selfish. It is the condescension people in the peace movement endure day in, day out. The thing is, Obama is not a graying professor at a Van Leer Institute seminar. He is quite possibly the next president of the United States.

NOT WITHOUT FLORIDA and/or New Jersey and/or Pennsylvania, however, so Obama came to AIPAC knowing that he had to make his case in a way that both reassured (better, enchanted) his audience yet did not undermine the very basis of what differentiates him from McCain. This he did.

He chose his words carefully. He checked off all the ways he is committed to Israel’s security, which indeed any American president must be. He also made sure to emphasize that a friend of peace is a true friend of Israel; he promised that he would not wait until the end of his term to get involved in the peacemaking. He spoke compellingly about the need for a diplomatic surge with Iran. He also recommitted himself to a two state solution. He did it all with a grace that earned a standing ovation and made me wonder why I was not a member of AIPAC myself.

But even the most apparently contentious thing he said—contentious, at least, outside the room—was carefully worded. Obama said that in any two-state solution Israel would have an “undivided” Jerusalem as its capital. He did not—note well—say a “united” Jerusalem, which would have pushed him from the Democratic Party to the Likud.

Indeed, let’s be clear about this, since some (including Mahmud Abbas, alas) have interpreted his phrase to mean exclusive Israeli sovereignty in the city. Again, when Israeli rightists say that Jerusalem should be exclusively theirs they say the city should be Israel’s capital and united. “Undivided” is the Labor Party euphemism for a city whose Arab and Jewish quarters are not separated by a wall, as before 1967 (and—though this is not usually mentioned in this context—the wall Israel has more recently thrown up).

“Undivided” does not prejudice the question of who is awarded formal sovereignty where. The Geneva Initiative, for example, proposes an undivided Jerusalem with international forces helping to keep the place an administrative whole.

OBAMA, TO BE sure, didn’t make any new friends in the Arab world yesterday. But he is likely to be the only president who will get something of a honeymoon from the Arab world nevertheless, as with the rest of the world. He is establishing himself as the Mohammed Ali of conflict resolution. If anyone expected the jabs to start landing yesterday, nobody laid a glove on him.