Monday, December 21, 2009

Who knows why and what for America chose Obama?

My title line sounds better in Hebrew, in which it's a takeoff of a kids' song that asks, "Who knows why and what for the zebra wears pyjamas?" But let me not get off track before I begin.

I went to an event sponsored by Democrats Abroad-Israel earlier this month. Panelists, including veteran Ha'aretz journalist Akiva Eldar, spoke about the U.S.-Israeli relationship in the age of Obama. (This is a hot topic in Washington as well, and Eldar took it up again in his paper.) Panelists and audience members offered various explanations for why Israelis are not enamored of the current President. The range was wide, including:
  • Obama doesn't support Israel's fundamental right to exist, and so Israelis should be uncomfortable. (I disagree with this one.)
  • There is a strong streak of racism in Israel, which is being encouraged by right-wing American groups suspicious of Obama's black and Muslim parentage. (Unfortunately, I think there's a fair amount of truth in this one.)
  • Obama is trying to be an "honest broker" in the Middle East conflict, a term which is a dirty word in Israel and which conflicts with America's commitment to guarantee Israel's qualitative military edge over its adversaries. (Eldar put this forward and elaborated on the inherent contradiction between the two American roles. I think he's got a good point.)
  • Most Israelis are not really ready for the difficult compromises that a peace agreement will require, and any world leader trying to push or lead the way through the endgame of the peace process will be disliked. (This is my theory.)
For all that, Obama's closing words in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech (yeah, I know, I raised an eyebrow, too) show me why Israelis--so often accused of fighting unneccessary wars--should admire the man:
We can acknowledge that oppression will always be with us, and still strive for justice. We can admit the intractability of deprivation, and still strive for dignity. Clear-eyed, we can understand that there will be war, and still strive for peace. We can do that -- for that is the story of human progress; that's the hope of all the world; and at this moment of challenge, that must be our work here on Earth.