As election day approached in the US, it was reported that Israel was one of the few countries in the world where a majority of Americans voting from abroad via absentee ballot showed a preference for Senator John McCain over Senator Barack Obama. This was in contrast to the final vote in the American Jewish community where, though support for Obama had been lower earlier, the ultimate breakdown was 78% for Obama to 21% for McCain.
A sizable proportion of those American Jews who were initially reluctant to vote for Obama apparently had questions about the implications of an Obama victory and McCain defeat for Israel and for US-Israel relations. These potential voters were aware of McCain’s long record regarding Israel and other foreign policy matters versus Obama’s relative inexperience in these areas, and they were generally unfamiliar with Obama overall. Their concerns also had to do with things said by the candidates during the campaign and with claims and charges published in the press or circulated on the Internet.
The final totals suggest that much of the earlier anxiety was alleviated, and by and large American Jews ended up voting for Obama at a similar level as they had for other Democratic presidential candidates in the past. Still, the question of exactly how his election will affect Israel remains open. To begin to answer that query, it might be useful to examine the passage in Obama’s November 4 victory speech in Chicago in which, addressing a global audience as well as his fellow Americans, he directly referenced foreign affairs.
Doing this might be a bit like trying to read tea leaves, given the brevity and unspecified application of the passage in question. But if we are looking for a way to anticipate what the president-elect may take as his guiding principles in the realm of foreign affairs, particularly in regard to Israel, it is reasonable to consider what, one hour after his victory was announced, he chose to say in his own words.
It was toward the end of his speech that Obama declared: “To those who would tear the world down: We will defeat you. To those who seek peace and security: We support you.”
Perhaps wishing to counter certain images of him that were circulated during the campaign and to preempt dangerous misunderstandings by America’s foes, in the first part of this statement he announced that he has no intention of withholding the use of force where it would be necessary to protect America and the world. Such a position could be taken as indicating that the danger posed by Islamist extremism and the global terrorism linked to that movement represents a threat that he takes seriously and is prepared to address – a position that could be reassuring both to Israel and to others conscious of this peril.
The second part of the passage, promising support “to those who seek peace and security,” might also offer reassurance to Israel and its supporters, in this case even more directly, if still only vaguely. While the Israeli consensus supports peace with security, in the US “peace and justice” is the mantra of members of certain groups and of other individuals who are harsh critics of Israel and sympathetic advocates for the Palestinian cause. In avoiding the latter formula and enunciating the former one, Obama staked out a position capable of encouraging supporters of Israel regarding where he will be coming from in dealing with the Israel-Palestinian dispute.
Whether all of this was done deliberately and whether this single passage can be taken as addressing the range of concerns held by Israel’s supporters is another matter – especially since Iran, a primary focus of concern in today’s world, was not directly named in the speech. Furthermore, as the saying goes, actions speak louder than words, and it remains to be seen what the new administration will actually do. Still, since this is what President- elect Obama, for whom words matter greatly, chose to say in the very earliest moments of his shaping the direction he sees himself going, it does seem to be something well worth noting.
Michael C. Kotzin, Executive Vice President, Jewish United Fund, Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago