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Edgar M. Bronfman

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Israel's Best Interest is a Morally Strong America

Posted: 10/30/08 06:20 PM ET

I am supporting Obama for president for two reasons: one is my disdain for the McCain-Palin ticket, and the other my respect and admiration for Barack Obama and Joe Biden.

Among Jewish voters, some feel the basic question is which candidate will act in the best interest of Israel. The answer is Barack Obama. As an American Jew who loves Israel, I cannot support John McCain. He cannot provide what Israel needs most--a respected, credible, morally strong America. To have the United States and Israel both regarded by the rest of the world as unreliable and in isolation is no way to solve the problems that plague both countries. This has been the effect of the Bush policies, and these are the policies that John McCain has promised to continue. Barack Obama is the candidate who can restore America's moral authority in the world and position our government to help negotiate peace.

The most vexing problem Israel faces is its relations with its neighbors. From the inception of the state until today, Israelis have felt besieged, surrounded by enemies who want to make them disappear. The constant security threat has made it very difficult for Israel to address the long list of problems that for the most part have been swept under the rug while awaiting peace. These include a disastrous educational system, a widening gap between rich and poor, and bitter division between secular and religious Jews. Israel desperately needs peace if it is to come anywhere close to being the "light unto nations" of Jewish dreams.

I quarrel with the oft-heard assumption that "George W. Bush is good for Israel." He gleaned many Jewish votes on that slogan, but I take a contrarian's position. Israel is further from peace than it was at the end of the Clinton administration. The smoldering hatred between Iraq's Sunni and Shi'a has burst into flames as a result of the American occupation. An emboldened Iran, with its Shi'a majority, has strengthened and armed Israel's enemies Hamas and Hezbollah. But Israel's most immediate danger comes from a nuclear Iran. Under the Bush administration, conversations with the Iranians began only at the end of May 2007 and have been badly mishandled. The result of the Bush doctrine in the Middle East has been an America and an Israel that are regarded with hatred and fear.

The region requires an honest broker that will push both sides towards a workable solution and a two state outcome. I remember the scene at the White House when President Clinton helped Prime Minister Rabin to shake Arafat's hand. Whether an American president is prepared to preside over another handshake--one that could build lasting peace--should not be measured by his professed love for one side or the other, but by his judgment.

John McCain's choice of Sarah Palin as running mate is the towering example of his poor judgment. Palin's ignorance of public affairs is monumental. Especially disturbing to the Jewish voter should be her willing acceptance of the campaign assignment of demagogy, which has stirred up racism and hate. The prospect of our having a 72-year-old president in poor health raises the real possibility that Palin could be our president, a thoroughly frightening thought. (I am well aware, in my eightieth year, of the flagging energy of any 72-year-old.) McCain's choice of Palin was a bid to the extremists in the Republican party, not the considered choice of a man who puts his country first.

Barack Obama is the leader who can begin to undo some of the damage done by Bush's policies. His background as an American who has lived among diverse cultures makes him sensitive to the cultural and religious motives that shape conflicts. He is cerebral, measured, calm, and pragmatic. By his character, he will engage these issues with more than stonewalling and weapons. He is brilliant in his choices of advisors. He is a tough idealist who has the courage to imagine an America that may inspire hope, not fear, in the Middle East and around the world.

Voters who care about Israel's welfare should ask which candidate will help sustain the ties between Israel and American Jews. Those of us who were alive at the creation of Israel have a love for Israel that is tied to the Holocaust, to the displaced persons camps and to the early struggles for a Jewish homeland. We were all as generous as we could be in support of Israel, as donors and as advocates. Now there is a generation growing up that is more distant from Israel than I should like. Young Jews do not automatically support Israel, and many are rightly troubled by what they learn about the ill treatment of the Palestinians under Israeli occupation. No longer motivated by fear of anti-Semitism, they seek to understand what Israel stands for, not to say "my Israel, right or wrong." Without strong support among the younger generation of American Jews, Israel may lose its vital relationship with the US government.

Obama can inspire much-needed support for Israel among this next generation of American Jews. He reflects their idealism and speaks in the language of hope they understand. His approach to international affairs shows a commitment to restoring America's reputation and to working with our allies to combat war, poverty, disease, and environmental destruction. He has articulated a vision for American society that does not ask us to ignore our differences--religious, racial, or economic--but to set aside divisive rhetoric and acknowledge that we all have a stake in building a more ethical society. Under his leadership a renewed America can help to foster a renewed Israel. Barack Obama is an inspiring American, willing and able to lead this nation and the world to new heights in very perilous times. I will vote for him with enthusiasm.

Edgar M. Bronfman is the former president of the World Jewish Congress. He is the author, with Beth Zasloff, of Hope, Not Fear: A Path to Jewish Renaissance (St. Martin's Press, 2008).