Letter from Israel

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Israel.jpgFrom his sabbatical in Tel Aviv, my colleague Ron Kiener has sent this account of the Israeli view of the presidential election:
Israelis are slowly coming to terms with the fact that their favorite living American political figure, former President Bill Clinton, will not be returning to the White House anytime soon. One cannot underestimate the visceral warmth and goodwill that most Israelis hold towards Bill Clinton – the American President who hosted on the White House lawn the signing of the Oslo accords; the American President who flew to Israel on a moment’s notice to utter the words “Shalom, chaver” (“Goodbye, friend”) at Yitzhak Rabin’s funeral; the American President who tried, through a mastery of mind-numbing details, to bring peace to Israelis and the Palestinians; and when it all fell apart, the American President who didn’t hesitate to blame the diplomatic fiasco squarely on the bumbling, duplicitous, narrow-minded leadership of Yasser Arafat.


The love that Israelis felt towards Bill Clinton was effortlessly transferred to his wife Hillary Clinton, even as she clearly seemed to be made of different stuff. Hillary as First Lady had in 1993 briefly embraced the amorphous phrase “the politics of meaning” and its originator, the American Jewish gadfly Michael Lerner, a controversial figure whose love of a modern and militant Israel is more than a bit nuanced, to say the least. Hillary was even forgiven for her 1999 hug of Suha Arafat, Yasser’s wife, at a health care function on the West Bank at which Mrs. Arafat accused the Israeli army of using cancer-inducing poison gas to subjugate Palestinian women and children. Questions were certainly raised, but eventually dismissed. To put it simply, Hillary stood by her man, and for Israelis — who also were somewhat appeased by New York Jewish voters who resoundingly supported Hillary in her 2000 New York Senate campaign – that proximity to Bill was her heksher (the Hebrew word for a rabbinic imprimatur).
Israelis really do not care about Democrats or Republicans. Israelis, as a rule, care about one thing and one thing only: Who will be good for Israel. But for Israelis, the question is usually posed in a more emotive and intimate way: Who is a “friend” of Israel? Friendship is something that goes beyond politics – it is a deep and sympathetic understanding, conveyed through a myriad of emotional signs and symbols. It is the expectation and the promise that a foreign politician in a position of power and influence will instinctively side with the Jewish state, even as the entire United Nations Security Council is calling for Israel’s comeuppance.
In truth, Hillary never met that standard for Israelis. But her ties to beloved Bill were what kept her close to their hearts. Only one of this season’s presidential contenders hit the right affecting note, and had a history of consistently doing so: former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, hero of 9/11. For Israelis, New York City – sister city to Tel Aviv, populated by more than a quarter million expatriate Israelis – is their “home away from home,” even if they have never set foot in it. And for Israelis, 9/11 was the moment that Americans came to understand – if only for a moment, to be filed away for later remembrance – of what it is like to live as an Israeli, surrounded by monstrous adversaries, subjected to daily security inspections, a society soaked in anxiety. And Rudy Giuliani captured that weltanschauung, tried to run for president with it, and miserably failed. But for Israelis, Giuliani was the man.
But now that the presidential field has been winnowed down, Israelis look across the ocean and see a fearful prospect: Bill and Hillary are nearly toast, and what remains is a Republican ex-military man (a plus for Israelis) who had suffered as a war prisoner (another plus) and has received the endorsement of Senator Joe Lieberman (another kind of heksher), vs. a kushi (the Hebrew word for black – somewhat culturally the equivalent of the Yiddish schvartze) named Hussein who is likely a crypto-Muslim, or certainly a Manchurian candidate version of one. The only supporters of Barack Obama I have found in Israel are American 20-somethings who are here for a semester or two. Other than that, the fear and loathing for Obama is palpable. Obama might say the right thing, my Israeli friends are saying, but he is no “friend” of Israel – and could never become one.
That is why Israelis are excited to play host tonight to Senator John McCain. The next few months Israel will be welcoming a round of international VIPs in advance of celebrating its 60th anniversary. German PM Angela Merkel left town today, McCain is coming tonight, and Dick Cheney will be descending from his star cruiser to make a rare visit to Israel at the end of this week. Of all the visits, I am certain that tonight’s visit by McCain will be examined with the greatest intensity. McCain has said all the right things, and has been doing so for years; he has been uncompromising on terrorism, and on Iraq and Iran; and he has the right associations. For Israelis, therefore, a friend is coming to visit.
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