11/05/2008 07:00 PM

Concern in Israel

Jerusalem Skeptical of Obama's Middle East Policy

By in Jerusalem

Not everyone is ecstatic about Barack Obama's victory in the US presidential elections. Many in Israel are concerned that, should Obama make good on his promise to talk to all comers, Israel could be left out in the cold.

Not everyone in Israel is quite sure what to think about the new American president-elect.
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Not everyone in Israel is quite sure what to think about the new American president-elect.

Barack Obama was the candidate that the world wanted the US to elect. But in Jerusalem, his victory is not universally welcome. There are those, particularly within the Israeli Foreign Ministry, who worry that Obama will deviate from Bush's path of leaving well enough alone. While few would argue that American attention in the region is unneeded, some are concerned that Obama may go overboard and make good on his promise to negotiate with all comers. The Foreign Ministry is particularly concerned that Obama may look to smooth relations with Iran.

The concern is not that farfetched. During the campaign, Obama repeatedly said he would welcome a dialogue with Tehran. Many in Tel Aviv see it as a foregone conclusion that the US under Obama will begin seeking out such negotiations.

"That is the biggest danger for us, because we wouldn't be at the negotiating table ourselves," former Mossad leader Efraim Halevy said recently.

The danger, he said, comes from the fact that such talks would necessarily touch on Iran's relations with other countries in the region, like Syria and Lebanon, and with the Palestinians. "When our regional interests are up for discussion, we can't be represented by a proxy," Halevy said. Jerusalem is also worried that Obama may begin talks with Iran without preconditions.

If Obama opens a dialogue with Syria and radical Islamists, says Barry Rubin from the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, a university. "That would undermine the solidity of modernizing forces in the Middle East, Rubin says.

Still, few in Israel are anticipating a complete revolution in America's Middle East policy. On the day before Americans went to the polls, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert went out of his way to calm the fears of his fellow citizens. "Whoever gets elected," he said, "will be a friend of Israel's."

Zalman Shoval, Israel's former ambassador in Washington D.C., for his part is not anticipating that solving the Israeli-Palestinian problem is going to be tops on Obama's long and daunting priority list. Every US president who has addressed the issue thus far, he points out, has failed. "Why would Obama want to begin with a flop?" he wonders.

Pierre Heumann is the Middle East correspondent for the Swiss paper Weltwoche


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