Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Is Obama a danger to Israel after all?

Every Israeli who has lectured to a Jewish-American audience in the past year knows the drill. Immediately after leaving the stage he is taken aside by a few worried Jews. "We know you can't publicly interfere in our our business," they whisper into his air. "But tell the truth: Is Obama a danger to Israel?"

According to the polls, most Jews say "no" to this question despite such concern among some Jews. Despite the negative campaign about Barack Obama's "connections" with Israel and the hoopla over his middle name (Hussein), the overwhelming majority of Jews will apparently maintain their historical loyalty to the Democratic Party. But the nagging doubt won't go away.

The standard Israeli answer is that Obama apparently is not a danger to Israel. The American system is stronger than the individual. Barring an extreme crisis, it's hard to see how a single president could put a serious anti-Israel spin on U.S. Middle East policy. That kind of change takes years, and Obama, anyway, is talking about changes in other areas.

Support for Israel is rooted deep in the heart of the Washington establishment. And, of course, we can't scoff at the declarations of the candidate himself, who has reiterated his commitment to Israel.

But there is one unknown in Obama's foreign-policy equation: his attitude toward Iran. Officials in Jerusalem won't say it out loud, but Obama's support for renewing the dialogue with Tehran is making them very uncomfortable. True, President George W. Bush plans to establish a U.S. interests office in Tehran. But Bush overall has demonstrated determination against Iran, while to Israeli ears Obama's tone regarding that country's nuclear program sounds slightly appeasing. It could, of course, go the other way: A failure of diplomatic contacts with Iran could stiffen President Obama's attitude to Iran. In addition, he is well aware of the suspicions against him in this area. Nevertheless, when it comes to Iran, it would appear that Israel would be more comfortable with President John McCain.

It's hard to ask Israelis to look at the wider picture with the threat of an Iranian bomb floating overhead, but an Obama victory would have a plethora of positive implications that don't necessarily have any connection to the Middle East, such as for interracial relations in the U.S. and America's image around the world.

Even more important: Obama is poised to become president of a country where just 50 years ago in some states a black man risked being hung on the nearest tree merely for looking at a white woman; a place where just 45 years ago Jewish civil rights activists were murdered, their bodies thrown into a Mississippi delta swamp for registering and encouraging black voters; where Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered by a white racist for daring to argue that blacks deserved equal rights.

One of the unofficial songs of Obama's campaign has a special significance: "Yes, We Can," written and performed by two natives of New Orleans, Lee Dorsey and Allen Toussaint. New Orleans is the city that the Bush administration left to die in Hurricane Katrina.

"Yes, We Can," like most of the great anthems of the civil rights movement, was written in the 1960s. In 1964, when Obama was 3, Sam Cooke wrote "A Change Is Gonna Come." On Tuesday, if Obama wins, radio stations in the U.S. will be playing this song, whose third verse  "I go to the movie and I go downtown, somebody keep telling me don't hang around"  was once too blunt for radio play.

An Obama victory will be no less important than King's March on Washington, and nearly as important as the Civil Rights Act signed by then president Lyndon Johnson.

On Tuesday morning a black man - even if he is not the direct descendant of slaves (his father came to America from Africa 90 years after the abolition of slavery) - is expected to be elected to the most important job in the world. Somewhere, Sam Cooke must be smiling.

By Amos Harel, Haaretz Correspondent