An Israeli’s ‘letter to Obama’

An Israeli’s ‘letter to Obama’

Yossi Klein Halevi is a center-right Israeli whose views are not generally supported by Meretz USA. But he is a bellwether of Israeli public opinion, having voted for the winner in every Israeli election since 1992. Our thanks to Lilly Rivlin, the immediate past president of Meretz USA, for sharing her thoughts and making us aware of Klein Halevi’s:

Friends, I’ve been thinking a lot about the Benny Morris Op Ed piece in the NY Times, and the subsequent reaction, the letters in the NYT, people discussing it. Some friends called him paranoid. I think that Benny Morris represents a significant part of the Israeli population. For those who are involved in being “Israel Watchers,” for those of you who have opinions about what Israel should do, I suggest you read Yossi Klein Halevi’s piece, “Dear Barack Obama,” in The New Republic. And remember that this letter preceded the most recent attack in Jerusalem. Add to the mix, I am picking up in conversations with Israelis that they are taking the Iranian nuclear threat seriously. And that they will not tolerate a nuclear Iran. It would seem that applying pressure on Iran is a priority.– Lilly Rivlin

“Dear Barack Obama”
A letter from an anxious Israeli to the presidential candidate on the eve of his visit to Jerusalem. By Yossi Klein Halevi, The New Republic, published July 19, 2008.

Dear Senator Obama,

Welcome to Israel. …

On the surface, the Israel you will encounter is thriving. The beaches and cafes are crowded, the shekel is one of the world’s strongest currencies, our high-tech companies are dominating NASDAQ, our wineries are winning international medals, and we even export goat cheese to France. But beneath the exuberance lies is a desperate nation. The curse of Jewish history– the inability to take mere existence for granted– has returned to a country whose founding was intended to resolve that uncertainty. Even the most optimistic Israelis sense a dread we have felt only rarely– like in the weeks before the Six Day War, when Egyptian President Gammal Abdul Nasser shut down the Straits of Tiran, moved his army toward our border, and promised the imminent destruction of Israel. At the time, Lyndon Johnson, one of the best friends Israel ever had in the White House, was too preoccupied with an unpopular war to offer real assistance.

We feel our security unraveling. Terror enclaves have emerged on two of our borders, undoing a decades-long Israeli policy to deny terrorist bases easy reach to our population centers. The cease-fire with Hamas is widely seen here as a defeat– an admission that Israel couldn’t defend its communities on the Gaza border from eight years of shelling, and an opportunity for Hamas to consolidate its rule and smuggle in upgraded missiles for the inevitable next round of fighting.

The unthinkable has already happened: missiles on Haifa and Ashkelon, exploding buses in Jerusalem, hundreds of thousands of Israelis transformed into temporary refugees. During the first Gulf War in 1991, when Tel Aviv was hit with Scud missiles, residents fled to the Galilee. During the Second Lebanon War in 2006, when the Galilee was hit with Katyushas, residents fled to Tel Aviv. In the next war, there will be nowhere to flee: The entire country is now within missile range of Iran and its terrorist proxies.

Above all else, we dread a nuclear Iran. With few exceptions, the consensus within the political and security establishment is that Israel cannot live with an Iranian bomb. In the U.S., a debate has begun over whether the Iranian regime is rational or apocalyptic. In truth no one knows whether the regime, or elements within it, would be mad enough to risk nuclear war. But precisely because no one knows, Israel will not place itself in a position to find out.

As we contemplate the possibility of an Israeli military strike, we worry about the extent of support from you at what could be the most critical moment in our history. When Israelis discuss the timing of a possible attack, they often ask: If Obama wins the election, should we hit Iran before January?

True, you told AIPAC that “we should take no option, including military action, off the table.” But that was the one moment in your speech that failed to convince. Last December you appeared to endorse the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), which broadly hinted that Iran may not be seeking a nuclear bomb after all– a claim that may have soothed Americans worried about Dick Cheney launching another preemptive war, but appalled not only Israeli intelligence but also French and British intelligence (and that has since been at least partially retracted). In the Iowa debate, you responded to a question about the NIE by stating that “it’s absolutely clear that this administration and President Bush continues to not let facts get in the way of his ideology…They should stop the saber-rattling, should have never started it, and they need now to aggressively move on the diplomatic front.”

From where Israelis sit, it’s clear that Iran temporarily suspended its weaponizations program– which is, in fact, the least important part of its effort to attain nuclear power– for the same reason that Muamar Qadaffi abandoned his nuclear program: fear of America after the Iraq invasion. A senior European Union official told me last year how grateful he was to America and Israel for raising the military threat against Iran. “You make our job easier,” he said, referring to European-Iranian negotiations.

I am convinced that you regard a nuclear Iran as an intolerable threat, as you put it to AIPAC, and that, under your administration, negotiations with Iran would be coupled with a vigorous campaign of sanctions. And you’ve made the convincing argument that you could summon international goodwill far better than the current administration. No nation would be more relieved by an effective sanctions campaign than Israel. We know what the consequences are likely to be of an attack on Iran– retaliatory missiles on Tel Aviv, terrorism against Jewish communities abroad, rising antisemitism blaming the Jews for an increase in oil prices.

We worry, though, that the sanctions will be inadequate and that the Iranians will exploit American dialogue as cover to complete their nuclearization. Unless stopped, Iran’s nuclear program will reach the point of no return within the early phases of the next administration. We need to hear that under no circumstances would an Obama administration allow the Iranian regime to go nuclear– that if sanctions and diplomacy fail, the U.S. will either attack or else support us if we do.

The rise of Hamas has only confirmed what Israelis have sensed since the violent collapse of the peace process in September 2000: that the Palestinian national movement is dysfunctional. The bitter joke here is that we’re well within reach of a two-state solution– a Hamas state in Gaza and a Fatah state in the West Bank.

In your speech to AIPAC, you intuited an understanding of the Israeli psyche– hopes for peace, along with wariness. But our wariness isn’t only a response to terrorism. More profoundly, we fear being deceived again by wishful thinking, by our desperation for peace, as we allowed ourselves to be during the years of the Oslo process. At that time, many Israelis began a painful, necessary process of self-reckoning, asking ourselves the crucial question of how Palestinians experienced this conflict, in effect borrowing Palestinian eyes. Many of us forced ourselves to confront the tragedy of a shattered people, one part dispersed, another part occupied, yet another uneasy citizens in a Jewish state.

Most of all, we allowed ourselves the vulnerability of hope. We lowered our guard and empowered Yasser Arafat, convincing ourselves that he had become a partner for peace. The subsequent betrayal wasn’t Arafat’s alone: Even now Fatah continues to convey to Palestinians the message that Israel is illegitimate and destined to disappear. Many Israelis have become so wary of being taken for fools again– which this generation of Jews had vowed would never happen to us– that talk of hope seems like unbearable naivete.

Most Israelis want a solution to the Palestinian problem as keenly as does the international community, and understand, no less than our critics abroad, that the occupation is a long-term disaster for Israel. The Israeli irony is that we have shifted from dreading the creation of a Palestinian state to dreading its failure. Fulfilling the classical Zionist hopes for a democratic Israel with a Jewish majority, at home in the Middle East and an equal member of the international community, ultimately depend on resolving the Palestinian tragedy. The Jewish return home will not be complete until we find our place in the Middle East.

But empowering the Palestinians requires renewing the trust of the Israeli public toward them. And that, in turn, requires some sign from Palestinian leaders that Israel’s legitimacy is at least being debated within Palestinian society rather than systematically denigrated. Repeating a commitment to “peace” is meaningless: Peace, after all, can include a Middle East without a Jewish state.For many years, Israelis denied the right of the Palestinians to define themselves as a nation, considering Palestinian nationalism an invention by the Arab world to undermine Israel. We experienced our conceptual breakthrough in the 1990s. Now it’s the Palestinians’ turn. Admittedly, Israelis, as the powerful protagonists, could more readily develop a nuanced understanding of the conflict.

Psychologically, though, we too are the underdog: Israel may be Goliath to the Palestinian David, but we are David to the Arab world’s (and Iran’s) Goliath. We cannot empower the Palestinians while fearing our consequent diminishment.

You can be a crucial voice in encouraging the transformation of Palestinian consciousness. Perhaps parts of Palestinian society and of the broader Arab world would be able to hear from you what it cannot hear from us: that the Jews aren’t colonialist invaders or crusaders but an indigenous people living in its land. Perhaps you can help the Middle East reconcile itself to our existence, and in so doing, help us complete our return home.

As you go through the requisite visits to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and the President’s House, the Israeli public will be hoping to hear, beyond affirmations of your commitment to Israeli security, that America under President Obama will understand what maintaining that security involves. We hope that you will insist on a peace based on acceptance of the permanent legitimacy of a Jewish state, and on a Middle East free of the apocalyptic terror of a nuclear Iran. We, too, need the hope that you have promised America.

Yossi Klein Halevi is a contributing editor of The New Republic and a senior fellow at the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies of the Shalem Center.

By | 2008-07-24T14:20:00-04:00 July 24th, 2008|Blog|1 Comment

One Comment

  1. Ron Skolnik July 24, 2008 at 6:31 pm - Reply

    Klein HaLevi does an admirable job at profiling the difficult subjective reality in which Israelis live. He describes the true (and legitimate) fears by which Israelis are plagued, day in and day out. This reality must be taken into account.

    But Klein HaLevi (and too many others) make no effort to rise above the subjective in order to analyze the issue more closely and professionally. For example, far too little media discussion is taking place about the various power centers in Teheran, and how much sway is actually held by Ahmadinejad, compared to Iran’s Supreme Leader (Velāyat-e faqih)Ali Khamene’i, as just one example.

    Another neglected issue: To what extent does Iran’s nuclear program reflect the agenda of the Islamic Republic? And to what extent is this part of Iran’s national agenda, which extends back to the period of the (pro-Israel) Shah. Indeed, there are scholars who indicate that Iran’s nuclear weapons policy began well before the rise of the Islamic regime. And others teach us that, despite domestic opposition to the Islamic regime, the nuclear program is the one national issue on which pro-Islamists and anti-Islamists for the most part agree.

    This is not to excuse Iran its support for terror and unacceptable anti-Zionist rhetoric, nor am I suggesting that a nuclearized Islamic Republic should be of no concern to Israel. Far from it! But Klein HaLevi, despite his persuasive writing, brings us not one step closer to understanding the other key elements of the situation: Iranian history and subjective reality, Iran’s domestic politics, and the regional and geopolitics in play, for example.

    Israel’s subjective impressions must be taken into account, as key decisions might be a function of them. But I really hope that we begin to see a more in-depth discussion that tries to flesh out the fuller story. Sound decision-making depends on a more well-rounded understanding of the situation being confronted.

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