[Note: This post is part of an ongoing dialogue between Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic and Shmuel Rosner of Slate on the need for U.S. national candidates to stop invoking the Jewish state every chance they get. Rosner’s first letter can be read here; Goldberg’s reply to it, here. Rosner’s second letter is here.]
Happy End-of-the-Holidays. I don’t know what I’m looking forward to less — two more weeks of this campaign, or taking down my sukkah. I have to get a better sukkah next year. Before I get to McCain, let me acknowledge your perspicacity, as Bill O’Reilly would say: One of the things that’s been missing from the debate over which candidate is better for Israel is the question, Which candidate will make America stronger? Because a strong America is a necessity for Israel. I think that the Israeli officials you speak with who suggest that Obama might actually strengthen America’s standing in the world are on to something. Your analysis of McCain’s weaknesses, from an Israeli perspective, is spot-on, as well. It’s abundantly clear that Israelis of all political denominations become quite frightened when their neo-conservative cousins (not that you have to be Jewish to be a neo-conservative, by the way) talk about exporting democracy to the Muslim world. If you don’t mind me quoting myself, I’ll repeat a story I told in the Atlantic earlier this year. In December of 2006, Natan Sharansky received the Medal of Freedom from President Bush, and the Israeli embassy held a celebration afterward. As Sharansky extolled the virtues of democracy to the assembled crowd, a senior Israeli security official whispered to me, "What a child." He explained: "It’s not smart … He wants Jordan to be more democratic. Do you know what that would mean for Israel and America? If you were me, would you rather have a stable monarch who is secular and who has a good intelligence service on your eastern border, or would you rather have a state run by Hamas? That’s what he would get if there were no more monarchy in Jordan." Afterward, I spoke with Sharansky, and in his charmingly self-deprecating way, he told me the following: "After I came back from Washington once," he said, "I saw [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon in the Knesset, and he said, ‘Mazel tov, Natan. You’ve convinced President Bush of something that doesn’t exist.’" This is a long way of saying that Israelis, in the main, will be relieved when America stops talking about Arab democracy. That said, I don’t think John McCain is quite the neoconservative democracy warrior his enemies make him out to be. He is a more practical man, I think, than George W. Bush. But so, for that matter, is Barack Obama. I’ve looked for signs of incipient Carterism — defined here as an overarching belief in the power of the talking cure when it comes to evil dictators — in Obama’s actions and statements and so far, I haven’t found them. Which is not to say that might not overvalue negotiations when it comes to Iran; we just don’t know. I could go on about McCain’s views of the Middle East — where’s he strong and where he’s not (I do think that, unlike Obama — thank you, Joe Biden — America’s enemies might not be so eager to test McCain, in part because they might be under the impression that he’s crazy) but, today at least, the McCain campaign has a posthumous feel to it, and so I’m thinking more about Obama.
And so, to address your final point: Is it good for Obama to talk about Israel all the time? Yes. I agree with you, but for a slightly different reason. When I interviewed Obama on this subject, he said that one of the jobs of an American president is to hold up a mirror to Israel to show it where it might do better. This was his very polite way of suggesting that he wants to help Israel find a way out of the territories. The key, of course, is for Israelis to feel that a friend is holding up that mirror, not an enemy. Obama is trying very hard to show himself to be that friend.
Shmuel Rosner’s blog is here.