Ex-Israeli envoys debate Obama


NEW YORK (JTA) – Israel’s former ambassador to the United States is taking credit for Barack Obama’s recent statement to the Jewish media that he was committed to ensuring “Israel’s qualitative military superiority” over its Arab neighbors.

Danny Ayalon told JTA that the Obama campaign had reached out to him after the ambassador wrote a Jan. 23 column in The Jerusalem Post arguing that Israelis should greet the prospect of an Obama presidency “with some degree of concern.”

In the column, titled “Who are you Barack Obama?,” Ayalon wrote that he had met with the Illinois senator on two occasions and found “that he was not entirely forthright with his thinking” about Israel.

Ayalon’s column triggered swift criticism from his successor, Sallai Meridor, and a Ha’aretz editorial.

Last month, Israeli news reports citing anonymous government sources claiming that they do not want Obama elected, prompted Alon Pinkas, Israel’s former high-profile consul general in New York, to write a column defending Obama.

The spat comes amid continuing concern in some Jewish circles about Obama’s attitude toward the Jewish state – a concern sparked in part by an e-mail smear, since discredited, alleging that Obama is a Muslim, studied in an Islamic academy, took his Senate oath of office on a Koran and refuses to say the Pledge of Allegiance.

Jewish communal leaders from across the political and religious spectrum signed a letter condemning the false allegations, while seven Jewish Democratic senators put out their own statement defending Obama on Israel.

Still, as most of the states with large Jewish populations set to hold primaries Tuesday, the Obama campaign is working to shore up the candidate’s standing in the Jewish community.

Rudi Shenk, Obama’s New York state director, sent out a mass e-mail to “set the record straight” about Obama’s religion and his views on Israel.

“Even if you do not plan to endorse Senator Obama, please counter these false rumors that have been specifically targeted at our community,” Shenk wrote.

Obama himself spent more than 20 minutes on the phone with the Jewish media last week in which he took pains to stress his commitment to Israel.

During the call he discussed his 2006 visit to Israel and his tour of the country’s northern region, noting how he had been affected in his meetings with civilians who had suffered from Hezbollah rocket attacks.
“It drove home for me the vulnerability of so many Israeli residents and stiffened my resolve to ensure that Kassam rockets were not being fired into civilian targets whether from the north or the south,” he said. “We’re going to ensure Israel’s qualitative military superiority in this difficult neighborhood.”

The Obama campaign also provided statements dating back to March, 2007 in which the candidate pledged to maintain America’s “unique” defense relationship with Israel through foreign assistance and cooperative work on the Arrow program and other missile defense systems.

“This would help Israel maintain its military edge and deter and repel attacks from as far as Tehran and as close as Gaza,” Obama told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference last March.

In his column, Ayalon asserted that “Obama has yet to suggest specific measures he would enact regarding the Jewish State’s Qualitative Military Edge that allows us to defend ourselves against our current and future enemies.”

Two days after the column, Ha’aretz quoted Meridor as saying that while Israel is following the American elections closely, it “has no intention of interfering in the course of these elections.” And in a thinly veiled swipe at Ayalon, Meridor added, “Opinions to the contrary articulated by private Israeli citizens, including former officials, do not represent in any way the policy of the Government of Israel.”

In his interview with JTA, Ayalon said that his comments were being misconstrued by the critics. Ayalon maintains that he was neither endorsing nor opposing Obama’s candidacy, nor was he suggesting, as the e-mail smears implicitly do, that Obama was not being fully honest with his statements of support for Israel.

Ayalon said he was merely encouraging the candidate to be more specific in explaining his attitudes toward the Jewish state and that his criticisms were intended to be helpful. He added that he believes the Obama campaign will benefit from his op-ed, “as it already has.”

Ayalon also noted that Pinkas’ laudatory article had not elicited criticism about Israeli interference in American elections. The Pinkas op-ed defended Obama’s record on Israel, which he called “impeccable,” and blasted the Israeli reports of official concern over his candidacy.

“There is no way in the world that anyone remotely involved in foreign policy or U.S. policy ever expressed any concerns,” Pinkas wrote. “At worst, Obama may have been described as a question mark we know little about as were, before him, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush in 1992 and 2000 respectively.”

Ayalon denied the op-ed had any connection to his affiliation with Nefesh B’Nefesh, a non-profit that funds Americans wishing to move to Israel. Nefesh chairman and founder, Tony Gelbart, endorsed Rudy Giuliani the day after Ayalon’s op-ed was published.

“Nefesh B’Nefesh is apolitical, not for profit,” Ayalon said. “Certainly we did not discuss politics there. It goes without saying.”

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