Dr. Eran Lerman
(Director, American Jewish Committee, Israel/Middle East Office)

Copyright: Eran Lerman on line

Note: Dr. Eran Lerman sent his article for publication at RIEAS.

One does not need to be partisan—nor, for that matter, terminally naïve—to appreciate, even from the distance of an ocean and a continent away, this glowing, magnificent, transformative moment, in which the well-worn adage that “in America, every child can grow up to be president” was brilliantly upheld for the world to see. Perhaps it is not too much to hope that a seed was planted yesterday that may one day resonate, even among those in the Middle East who were brought up on a steady diet of bilious anti-American propaganda; and that the impact of this vote may touch even those who were told again and again, particularly after the war in Iraq, that the very concept of “democracy” is a dangerous foreign insert, imposed by force. Transcending all aspects of policy and strategy, it is this demonstrable reassertion of democratic values that will still be with us, in terms of the example America sets for the world, long after the specific agendas of the 2008 presidential campaign, and the actual choices and decisions of the incoming Obama Administration, have long been forgotten.

This message is all the more significant for us, as we in Israel:

•Commemorate the thirteenth anniversary of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin—three gun shots aimed at the very heart of democratic choice, which nevertheless failed to undo the firm commitment of most Israelis to the values that Rabin stood for;
•Face renewed challenges, occasionally turning violent, posed by radical groups operating on the far edges of the political spectrum, who seek to impose their will on the ongoing debate about the future borders with the Palestinians—whether they come from the far right, such as the extremist settlers in Hebron who wished death to IDF soldiers and desecrated a Muslim graveyard, or from the radical left, “anarchists against the fence,” who join Arab efforts to undo the security barrier;
•Prepare to go to the polls ourselves, three weeks after the planned celebration of Barack Obama’s inauguration. It is with the next Israeli government (in all likelihood, a “national unity” coalition, focused on the Iranian challenge) that will be put together—either by Tzipi Livni or by “Bibi” Netanyahu—that the Obama Administration will need to contend.

Among the enabling factors that sustain and enrich the special relationship between Israel and the United States, the commonality of democratic traditions is perhaps the most important and enduring. Whatever doubts many Israelis may harbor about the future, and about the course U.S. policy may take, this is one bond made stronger by the revived vitality of American political life, by the living embodiment of a culture of opportunity, and the dramatic reversal in the levels of popular participation, which had been presumed to have gone into permanent decline and now shot up to unprecedented levels.

Moreover, it is at least likely, albeit far from certain, that this message will indeed carry beyond our borders. True, the ardent ideological promotion of democracy as a tool of strategic change in the Middle East, which has been the mainstay of neoconservative thought and practice, has lost much of its luster due to the muddy (and bloodied) mess in Iraq. Healthy democratic institutions cannot be shipped in like prefabricated architecture (as we learned, to our dismay, in the Palestinian case). But the slower, and perhaps steadier, march toward the creation of functional civil societies that no longer fear the ire of their political overlords could be assisted and inspired by America’s choice. Such work might be done, at the ground level, by various types of “community organizers,” much like the young man who began his public life plying the seething streets of the South Side of Chicago in the angry ’80s. After all, “change” is not simply a campaign slogan: For so many in the Arab world, in the Third World, it is a profound yearning. It now has a face they can identify with.

To what extent will Israel be asked (or will even need to volunteer) to pay a price, to offer significant gestures—particularly to the Palestinians—so as to make American leadership possible once again in these parts, where so much distrust and despair have been sown by Islamist radicals? The answer to this question cannot be set in the stark terms that some people on the right might choose (“Never! Nothing!”), but neither can it be yielded to those on the Israeli left who would readily urge America, now under Obama, to coerce Israel into decisive concessions. Coercion is no longer, and will never be, part of the dialogue between two democratically elected leaderships; and yet it is also safe to say that no Israeli government can afford to ignore altogether the needs and requests of a friendly American administration. Somewhere in between the two extremes a way forward can worked out by the leadership on both sides.

But will an Obama Administration do what needs to be done on Iran? If there is a sense of anxiety among a great number of Israelis today, it is because of this one over-arching question mark. The region is being torn apart by a new “cold war”—the Iranian regime and its proxies, such as Hezbollah, and its allies, such as Syria and Hamas, on the one hand; much of the rest of the region (Israel, Turkey, the Arab moderates) on the other. What is now happening in Gaza reflects the growing arrogance of groups, nurtured by Iran, that have resumed their bid to abduct Israelis from within their own borders.

Meanwhile, Hezbollah uses Western weakness and ambiguity to tighten a death grip over Lebanese life. Close coordination will be needed; but so will a firm commitment to use all means. (An effective diplomatic dialogue can be part of the toolkit, as long as it is not the only one.) The forceful option must remain at hand, if only because of the old Roman dictum: Si vis pacem, para bellum—he who wishes for peace should be prepared for war.

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