With elections in February, Israel searching for its Obama

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 14, 2008 

JERUSALEM — While U.S. Sen. Barack Obama was running for president, Israeli pundits publicly fretted that he was too green, too liberal and too naive to capably navigate diplomatic quagmires in the Middle East.

Now, Israeli politicians can't get enough of the president-elect.

Candidates across the Israeli political spectrum are doing everything they can to wrap themselves in the Obama mystique as they position themselves for national elections in February.

The conservative front-runner has re-designed his campaign web site to mirror Obama's.

The religious right wing party has appropriated Obama's trademark "Yes We Can" slogan - and personalized it by adding "...with God's help."

And one of Israel's small, left wing parties enlisted help from a pair of Obama campaign consultants.

But the mad rush by Israeli politicians to wrap themselves in Obama sloganeering hasn't obscured an uncomfortable reality recognized by most pundits: There is no Israeli Obama poised to become a transformative voice in the Middle East.

"Israel is undergoing a profound transition from leaders who had moral authority and competence to a younger set of leaders who have demonstrated that they're not quite up to it," said Aaron David Miller, author of "The Much Too Promised Land: America's Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace," and an adviser to six former U.S. secretaries of state. "Israel is going to have enough trouble finding a competent leader, much less a transformative Israel is heading into a period of political change, but no one expects elections to produce dramatic changes.

The current front-runner is conservative Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who served three lackluster years as prime minister in the late-1990s.

That hasn't kept Netanyahu from trying to lay claim to some Obama charm in the weeks since the Illinois Democrat beat U.S. Sen. John McCain to become U.S. president-elect.

The Likud Party now deliberately mirrors the Obama campaign Web site's color, format and style. And Netanyahu aides played up their decision to enlist advice from two low-level Obama political consultants.

Netanyahu's attempts to link himself to Obama earned him the ridicule of Amos Biderman, the Haaretz newspaper political cartoonist who drew the Likud leader getting an extreme Obama-esque makeover. In the cartoon, stylists put blackface on Netanyahu and curl his newly-dyed-black hair to look more like the U.S. president-elect.

"I don't see anybody that is new and has (Obama's) talent and coolness," said Biderman. "I'm sure that there could be an Israeli Obama, but so far nature hasn't supplied one."

Of the next potential Israeli prime ministers, Netanyahu probably represents the one least ideologically aligned with Obama.

When compared with Obama, Netanyahu favors go-slow diplomacy with Israel's Arab neighbors and a more confrontational approach to deterring Iran from pressing ahead with its nuclear program.

But Netanayhu's not the only conservative Israeli appropriating Obama imagery.

Israel's conservative-religious Shas Party has adopted Obama's signature "Yes We Can" slogan, translated it into Hebrew, added "...with God's help" and plastered it on bus billboards across the country.

And Shas is even farther from Obama's ideological foundations than Likud.

The problem in Israel, said former Israeli adviser Daniel Levy, is that the nation's voters are still largely driven by fear, whereas Obama's election was a direct rejection of the politics of fear.

"The path to change is really challenging that existing paradigm," said Levy, who served as an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and is now a senior fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C.

In the upcoming election, voters are facing a choice among members of a new generation of political leaders whose resumes lack the gravitas of the country's warrior-statesmen who helped found Israel.

Each potential next prime minister has had a chance to lead the nation - and fallen short.

Netanyahu served three years as prime minister before losing to Labor leader Ehud Barak in 1999.

Barak unsuccessfully sought to secure a breakthrough peace deal with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Within months, the second Palestinian uprising broke out and Barak was forced from office after less than two years as prime minister.

Now back as Labor Party leader and defense minister in the current coalition led by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Barak is a long-shot to regain the post.

Netanyahu faces a stronger challenge from Tzipi Livni, Israel's foreign minister and the woman elected to succeed Olmert as head of the young center-right Kadima Party.

Had Livni been able to pull together a coalition government this fall, she could have avoided elections. But Livni refused to agree to political demands from Shas for joining her coalition. That sent Livni into the elections with a weak hand and little political cachet.

If there were to be an Israeli Obama, some think the leader would have to come from among Israel's Arab minority - an idea that isn't within the realm of possibility in the current political climate.

"Israel hasn't gone through its own civil rights struggle, so we're so not in a place where someone could have credibility inside the Arab community and have appeal to the broader community," said Levy. "We're not in that place because the narrative of Israeli-ness is still structured on such a level of exclusivity rather than inclusiveness that, until you address that reality, it's fantastical to think in those terms."

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McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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