McCain and Obama on Israel

John McCain and Barack Obama

No American should condition his or her choice for President on how ‘good’ a candidate is with respect to another country. Having said that, those of us who care about Israel know that no relationship is more important to Israel than that with the US, and the expected policies of the candidates in this area must play a part in our decision.

There has been an incredible amount of heat and little light shed on this question. There is no easy way to sort through everything that’s been said by partisans on both sides, so I personally am starting with the words of the candidates themselves. We have a good opportunity to do so today, because we have two speeches, both made this year to Israel-friendly audiences by Obama and McCain:

Barack Obama’s speech to members of Cleveland’s Jewish community of Feb. 24, 2008, and

John McCain’s speech to AIPAC on June 2, 2008.

I strongly suggest that everyone read both of these speeches. Yes, specific campaign promises don’t mean much, but you can get a good idea of the direction that a politician will go by what he promises (and what he does not promise).

Both McCain and Obama claim an absolute commitment to Israel’s security, but this is meaningless unless it’s translated into policies. So let’s see what they would do about one of the greatest threats, Iran’s nuclear program:



Rather than sitting down unconditionally with the Iranian president or supreme leader in the hope that we can talk sense into them, we must create the real-world pressures that will peacefully but decisively change the path they are on. Essential to this strategy is the UN Security Council, which should impose progressively tougher political and economic sanctions. Should the Security Council continue to delay in this responsibility, the United States must lead like-minded countries in imposing multilateral sanctions outside the UN framework. I am proud to have been a leader on these issues for years, having coauthored the 1992 Iran-Iraq Arms Non-Proliferation Act. Over a year ago I proposed applying sanctions to restrict Iran’s ability to import refined petroleum products, on which it is highly dependent, and the time has come for an international campaign to do just that. A severe limit on Iranian imports of gasoline would create immediate pressure on Khamenei and Ahmadinejad to change course, and to cease in the pursuit of nuclear weapons.

At the same time, we need the support of those in the region who are most concerned about Iran, and of our European partners as well. They can help by imposing targeted sanctions that will impose a heavy cost on the regime’s leaders, including the denial of visas and freezing of assets.

As a further measure to contain and deter Iran, the United States should impose financial sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran, which aids in Iran’s terrorism and weapons proliferation. We must apply the full force of law to prevent business dealings with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps… Holding Iran’s influence in check, and holding a terrorist organization accountable, sends exactly the right message — to Iran, to the region and to the world.

We should privatize the sanctions against Iran by launching a worldwide divestment campaign. As more people, businesses, pension funds, and financial institutions across the world divest from companies doing business with Iran, the radical elite who run that country will become even more unpopular than they are already.

Ending the war in Iraq I believe will be an important first step in achieving that goal because it will increase our flexibility and credibility when we deal with Iran. Make no mistake I believe that Iran has been the biggest strategic beneficiary of this war and I intend to change that. My approach to Iran will be aggressive diplomacy I will not take any military options off the table. But I also believe that under this administration we have seen the threat grow worse and I intend to change that course. The time I believe has come to talk to directly to the Iranians and to lay out our clear terms. Their end of pursuit of nuclear weapons, an end of their support of terrorism and an end of their threat to Israel and other countries in the reason. To prepare this goal I believe that we need to present incentives, carrots, like the prospect of better relations and integration into the national community, as well as disincentives like the prospect of increased sanctions.

I would seek these sanctions through the United Nations and encourage our friends in Europe and the Gulf to use their economic leverage against Iran outside of the UN and I believe we will be in a stronger position to achieve these tough international sanctions if the United States has shown itself to be willing to come to the table. I will also continue the work I started in the United States Senate by enacting my legislation to make it easier for states to divest their pension funds from Iran. As president I will leave all options on the table for dealing with a threat from Iran including the military options.

While their style is different, the substance is surprisingly similar (except for the part about Iraq — I’ll get to that later). McCain gets some points for being more specific about sanctions, and not offering ‘incentives’. Neither of them has proposed presenting Iran with a credible ultimatum — probably the only realistic way of stopping the nuclear program.

Another critical issue is the US policy, pushed by the Bush Administration, of trying to force Israel into an untenable deal with the PLO. Here is what they say about the so-called “peace process”:



Prime Minister Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas are engaged in talks that all of us hope will yield progress toward peace. Yet while we encourage this process, we must also ensure that Israel’s people can live in safety until there is a Palestinian leadership willing and able to deliver peace. A peace process that places faith in terrorists can never end in peace.

I will strengthen Israel’s security and strengthen Palestinian partners who support that vision and personally work for two states that can live side by side in peace and security with Israel’s status as a Jewish state ensured so that Israelis and Palestinians can pursue their dreams…

…Israel’s security is sacrosanct, is non negotiable. That’s point number one. Point number two is that the status quo I believe is unsustainable over time. So we’re going to have to make a shift from the current deadlock that we’re in. Number three that Israel has to remain a Jewish state and what I believe that means is that any negotiated peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians is going to have to involve the Palestinians relinquishing the right of return as it has been understood in the past. And that doesn’t mean that there may not be conversations about compensation issues. It also means the Israelis will have to figure out how do we work with a legitimate Palestinian government to create a Palestinian state that is sustainable. It’s going to have to be contiguous, its going to have to work its going to have to function in some way.

McCain suggests that the Fatah leadership with which Israel is presently dealing is not honestly committed to peace, and for this he gets a point. I hope he would also make explicit the implication in his statement that Israel should make no concessions to the Palestinians while terrorism continues.

Obama’s statement is interesting for two reasons: first, he makes a clear statement opposed to a Palestinian right of return to Israel. I wish he had said that “there is no such right” rather than suggesting that they should ‘relinquish’ a right that they in fact possess, and I wish that he had referred to “aid in resettlement” rather than “compensation”, but this is still definitely a positive.

Second, he refers to the necessity for Israel to be a Jewish state (twice). Contrast it with the position of the “J Street” organization, which only refers to Israel as “the homeland of the Jewish People”. Although the distinction may appear insignificant, it is extremely important in the context of demands being made by Palestinian nationalists among Israel’s Arab citizens, who wish to change the character of Israel from a Jewish state to a “state of its citizens”.

This is not to say, of course, that McCain wouldn’t take the same or stronger positions on these issues — I’m sure that he would — but the fact that Obama has articulated them when a large part of his constituency would prefer that he didn’t, is relevant.

Obama also said that he would “strengthen Palestinian partners who support” a secure two-state solution. One hopes that he does not mean that he wants to continue the Bush administration’s policy of arming and training Fatah ‘security’ forces.

Hamas is also an issue. There are those who would grant some degree of legitimacy to Hamas and urge Israel to negotiate with it. But neither candidate appears to fall into this category. Here is what they say about Hamas:



[The Palestinian people] are badly served by the terrorist-led group in charge of Gaza. This is a group that still refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist, refuses to denounce violence, and refuses to acknowledge prior peace commitments. They deliberately target Israeli civilians, in an attempt to terrorize the Jewish population. They spread violence and hatred, and with every new bombing they set back the cause of their own people.

I think that there are communications between the Israeli government and Hamas that may be two or three degrees removed, but people know what Hamas is thinking and what’s going on and the point is that with respect to Hamas, you can’t have a conversation with somebody who doesn’t think you should be on the other side of the table. At the point where they recognize Israel and its right to exist, at the point where they recognize that they are not going to be able to shove their world view down the throats of others but are going to have to sit down and negotiate without resort to violence, then I think that will be a different circumstance. That’s not the circumstance that we’re in right now.

Obama seems to leave open the possibility that Hamas will change its spots. That isn’t going to happen to an organization whose raison d’être is jihad against Jews and Israel.

Iraq is also mentioned. This is the most difficult issue to compare, because they have radically different views of what is presently happening there (and because Obama does not go into great detail).



Another matter of great importance to the security of both America and Israel is Iraq. …our troops in Iraq have made hard-won progress under General Petraeus’ new strategy. And Iraqi political leaders have moved ahead — slowly and insufficiently, but forward nonetheless. Sectarian violence declined dramatically, Sunnis in Anbar province and throughout Iraq are cooperating in the fight against al Qaeda, and Shia extremist militias no longer control Basra — the Maliki government and its forces are in charge. Al Qaeda terrorists are on the run, and our troops are going to make sure they never come back…

[withdrawal of troops according to a timetable] would surely result in a catastrophe. If our troops are ordered to make a forced retreat, we risk all-out civil war, genocide, and a failed state in the heart of the Middle East. Al Qaeda terrorists would rejoice in the defeat of the United States. Allowing a potential terrorist sanctuary would profoundly affect the security of the United States, Israel, and our other friends, and would invite further intervention from Iraq’s neighbors, including an emboldened Iran.

The threat [to Israel] from Iran is real and my goal as president would be to eliminate that threat.

Ending the war in Iraq I believe will be an important first step in achieving that goal because it will increase our flexibility and credibility when we deal with Iran. Make no mistake I believe that Iran has been the biggest strategic beneficiary of this war and I intend to change that.

I don’t share McCain’s optimism about the outcome of the war — I think that increased Iranian influence in Iraq will be hard to avoid at this point — nor do I think, as Obama appears to, that weakening our military position there is somehow going to strengthen our diplomatic stance toward Iran. I’m going to give this one to McCain.

Another question that has been raised is the matter of advisers. The most notorious was Zbigniew Brzezinski (see “Barack Obama’s Zbig problem” and “A letter to the candidate“), who has been associated with Obama. Other Obama advisors considered anti-Israel who have since been dumped are Rob Malley and Samantha Power (see her cheescake photo here). Obama said this about that:

It means that somebody like Brzezinski who, when he was [Carter’s] national security advisor would be considered not outside of the mainstream in terms of his perspective on these issues, is now considered by many in the Jewish Community anathema. I know Brzezinski he’s not one of my key advisors. I’ve had lunch with him once, I’ve exchanged emails with him maybe 3 times. He came to Iowa to introduce for a speech on Iraq. He and I agree that Iraq was an enormous strategic blunder and that input from him has been useful in assessing Iraq, as well as Pakistan, where actually, traditionally, if you will recall he was considered a hawk. The liberal wing of the Democratic Party was very suspicious of Brzezinski precisely because he was so tough on many of these issues. I do not share his views with respect to Israel. I have said so clearly and unequivocally.

McCain also has made at least one faux pas in this area, having allegedly said in 2006 that he would send James Baker or Brent Scowcroft to the Mideast. However, he has since said that his view on Israel emphatically does not reflect theirs.

So there it is, no smoking guns. I think McCain comes out a bit tougher on Iran — but not as tough as I’d like — while Obama might be somewhat more sensitive to (or well-briefed about) the concerns of pro-Israel Jews.

There is no question that these candidates have very significant ideological and practical differences, and that the outcome of this election will make a huge difference to the path that the nation will take, and not just in the Middle East. In the next few months, we need to demand from both of them direct and detailed answers to many questions. We really need to get this one right.

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One Response to “McCain and Obama on Israel”

  1. Shalom Freedman says:

    I am skeptical about our ability to ‘get this one right’. i.e. to know beforehand which candidate will be best for Israel. Again the example of Bush who is so friendly to Israel and who has not been so good for us comes to mind. As I see it now barring some major ‘event’ that turns the world upside down Obama is a very clear favorite to win. One danger I do see with him is not that he will be directly ‘against Israel’ but rather that his priorities will be in completely different directions from Israel’s concerns.