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Analysis: After Bush, Some Israelis Looking For Tough Love From Obama

STEVEN GUTKIN | November 16, 2008 01:06 PM EST | AP

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JERUSALEM — Each time a new U.S. president is elected, the question that leaps to Israeli minds is, "is he good for the Jews?"

With Barack Obama's victory, however, what's good for the 5.5 million Jews of Israel has become a matter of debate.

Eight years of unflinching support from President George W. Bush has yielded no peace. So while most Israelis appreciated Bush's backing, others wonder if a tougher approach _ maybe even some arm twisting here and there _ might not have been better.

Their fear stems from the demographic threat posed by Israel's occupation of Arab lands, as the size of the Arab population approaches the Jewish one and endangers Israel's existence as a Jewish and democratic state. A true friend of Israel is an American leader who will work not only to protect Israel from external enemies, but to disentangle itself from the 41-year-occupation _ or so the argument goes.

For Obama, that could mean abandoning what many see as a policy of blanket support in favor of some muscular diplomacy, such as pressuring Israel to stop expanding settlements on land Palestinians claim for a future state.

"We should hope Obama will help Israel help itself, because that is how true friendship is measured. That he will criticize its policy when he must, because that, too, is a test of true friendship," wrote Israeli journalist Gideon Levy in the Haaretz daily.

And in a commentary titled "Don't be afraid of the Jews," Haaretz's Akiva Eldar argued that Obama need not worry about losing U.S. Jewish support if he takes Israel to task.

"The concept 'friend of Israel,' which had become a synonym for supporters of perpetuating the occupation, has begun to take on new meaning," he wrote.

Israeli peace activist Dror Etkes thinks Israel needs tough love from Obama, but only if it's done wholeheartedly and evenhandedly.

"If you're not serious about pressuring the two sides, don't do it, don't start," he said in an interview. "Because you end up bringing more and more people to the conclusion that this conflict is unsolvable."

The Bush administration largely turned a blind eye to Israeli practices that conflict with U.S. positions, such as demolishing homes and expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

Obama, say the doves, could begin by pressuring Israel to stop building up its existing settlements, and dismantle new ones built by nationalist hard-liners without its approval.

To others, the idea of pressuring Israel at all is anathema.

Nationalist lawmaker Arieh Eldad said that if the West Bank became a Palestinian state, Hamas militants would end up taking it over as they did Gaza after Israel withdrew from there three years ago.

It's not Obama would who would pay for creating a Palestinian state, he said. "We will pay. Our children will pay."

Dore Gold, a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, said Israelis don't need "outside actors to impose a solution on them."

"My instinct is to trust the democratic judgment of the people of Israel," he said.

That judgment will be delivered Feb. 10, in Israel's general election.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has been sounding alarm bells about the threat Israel faces unless it gives up the West Bank and signs peace with the Palestinians. But he is stepping down in a few weeks. Tzipi Livni, the candidate to succeed him, says she won't be bound by Olmert's prescriptions. Her main opponent, the hawkish Benjamin Netanyahu, indicates he's in no hurry to discuss yielding any land.

Obama already has a starring role in the campaign. Netanyahu claims a personal chemistry with the president-elect, apparently hoping it will win centrist votes. The more dovish Livni is warning Obama not to talk to Iran, a stance which may raise her stock with conservatives.

Israelis were initially apprehensive about Obama's Muslim-sounding middle name, his stated willingness to talk to Iran and the presence of what they saw as pro-Palestinian political advisers in his camp.

Many were soothed by the choice of the staunchly pro-Israel Joe Biden as Obama's running mate, and Obama's emotional visit to Israel, though up to election day, Israel was one of the few countries where polls showed a sizeable preference for McCain.

Obama's choice of Rahm Emanuel for chief of staff was a "very strong comforting factor," said Danny Ayalon, a former Israeli ambassador to Washington.

Emanuel is a deeply committed Jew whose Israeli father was a member of Irgun, Israel's pre-state right-wing underground. During the first Gulf war, Emanuel came here as a volunteer worker in the maintenance of Israeli military vehicles.

At the same time, the Hebrew-speaking Emanuel could give Washington an insider's view of Israel. If Obama chooses to put pressure on Israel, Emanuel's presence at the top could help fireproof the new president against allegations he is acting against Israel's interests.

U.S. presidents have a stake in nurturing deep-rooted ties with Israel, said Aaron David Miller, a former adviser to both Republican and Democratic secretaries of state.

But neither country should want a relationship "where we defer to the Israelis in terms of our own tactics and strategies, where we don't have honest conversations with them about things they do that we don't like," he said.

The Americans who achieved the most in the region, Miller said, were Henry Kissinger, Jimmy Carter and James Baker, and they were all willing "to be tough with both Arabs and Israelis."

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Editor's Note: Steven Gutkin is AP's bureau chief for Israel and the Palestinian territories. AP writer Ian Deitch contributed to this report.

Filed by Nick Graham