JERUSALEM (JTA) — While Israel was one of only three countries in the world where polls before the U.S. presidential election showed a majority of citizens preferred John McCain over Barack Obama, the overwhelming sentiment in Israel following Obama’s election was more envious than apprehensive.
Across the ocean, Americans appeared excited by their president-elect and moved by an election considered a watershed for race relations in America. The country, it seemed, was turning a new page of history.
By contrast, Israel is entering an election campaign that seems mired in the past.
The three leading candidates for prime minister are two men who already have held the post and a woman who had the premiership in her hands last month but failed to assemble a governing coalition, prompting new elections in February.
Israel has been unable to demonstrate concrete progress in its peace talks with the Palestinians, unable to thwart the Iranian nuclear threat and unable to offer up a candidate who represents a break with the policies of the past.
It was against this backdrop that the three major Israeli candidates for prime minister — Benjamin Netanyahu of Likud, Tzipi Livni of Kadima and Ehud Barak of Labor — presented themselves this week to American Jews at the annual General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities.
“We are living in tough times in a tough neighborhood,” Barak, Israel’s defense minister, said in his plenary address to the North American federation umbrella organization on Monday. “For Israel to survive in this corner of the world means to stand firm, open-eyed, ready to stretch its hand, preferably the left hand, to find — to open any door, any window to try to find a way to make peace.
“At the same time, we should have the other hand, the right hand, with the pointing finger close to the trigger, ready to pull it whenever it’s necessary. That’s the situation that dominates our lives.”
The appearances of the three major-party candidates at the federations’ yearly gathering provided some glimpses of how each would approach Israel’s problems, showcased the differences in their personal styles and offered some signs of the reception each could expect from American Jewry.
In a 40-minute address that ran more than twice the length of those of his rivals, the front-runner in the race, Netanyahu, cast himself as Israel’s economic savior returned. He heralded his successes as Israel’s finance minister from 2003 to 2005 and championed an economy-based approach to mitigating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
On the Israeli-Palestinian front, Netanyahu favors pursuing achievable incremental agreements rather than chasing what he sees as an elusive final-status deal. He said he wants to focus on bolstering the “moderate parts of the Palestinian economy” to foster the conditions for political agreement.
The Likud leader did not, however, outline what a political agreement with the Palestinians would look like, nor did he mention pursuing the goal of a Palestinian state.
Netanyahu, who served as Israel’s prime minister from June 1996 to July 1999, tried to link himself to America’s president-elect, citing his meetings with Obama several times and casting himself as Israel’s candidate of change in what amounted to an American-style stump speech.
“Peace and security require a new direction, and an economic challenge that requires reinvigoration, and we intend to do both,” Netanyahu said.
“Any change involves overcoming vested interests. There are always champions of the status quo. There are always the naysayers,” he said. “You have to show that consistency of vision and purpose that can change the lives of Israelis, the lives of Israelis and Palestinians.”
Where Netanyahu’s presentation was polished and confident, his English articulate and his policy proposals clear — ranging from lowering taxes to fighting organized crime — Livni’s pitch was more emotional, short on detail and a bit more tongue-tied.
Nevertheless, Livni, Israel’s foreign minister and Ehud Olmert’s successor as Kadima Party leader, was met with the same rousing applause that greeted Netanyahu, whose years as Israel’s U.N. representative, foreign minister and prime minister have made him a more familiar character to American Jews.
“This gathering is about tikkun olam,” Livni said, using the Hebrew term for repairing the world. “Tikkun olam needs to start in doing something for yourself, in understanding better who you are, before you are doing for the others.
“We need not to forget the ultimate goal of the State of Israel,” she said. “We need to keep the nature of the State of Israel, the character of the State of Israel as a Jewish state because this is the raison d’etre of the State of Israel.”
But, she emphasized, “It’s not a matter of religion. It is more a matter of nationality. A Jewish state is not a monopoly of rabbis. It’s what we are; it’s what each and every one of us feels inside.”
Much of Livni’s speech was directed at the international community. She said countries around the world must do more to confront anti-Semitism, support Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state and confront Iran. She also called upon the international community to boycott the so-called Durban II conference. The U.N. gathering, scheduled to take place in April in Geneva, follows up on the 2001 U.N. conference against racism in Durban, South Africa, which turned out to be an Israel-bashing, anti-Semitic forum.
She said Israel will not participate in and will not legitimize the conference.
Defending the pace of the negotiations she has led with the Palestinians, Livni said she needs more time to reach a final-status deal — one of her central pitches in the race for prime minister.
Addressing the international community, she said, “Don’t force us to do something which is against our interests. The idea is that this historical reconciliation is the responsibility of the leadership of only two peoples and not the entire international community.”
If Netanyahu cut the figure of an American-style candidate, and Livni the advocate and foreign minister, Barak, a former Israel Defense Forces’ chief of staff, sounded like an army general. He focused exclusively on Israel’s security challenges, singling out Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas. He said the Israeli army has learned the lessons of its failures in the 2006 war with Hezbollah, the IDF is ready to respond to Hamas attacks from the Gaza Strip and time is running out for effective sanctions against Iran.
On the diplomatic front, Barak said Israel will have to determine whether Syria truly is interested in peace and whether preliminary talks can be translated into concrete results.
“We have a deep and profound interest in finding a way to delay and avoid wars,” said Barak, who was Israel’s prime minister from July 1999 to March 2001.
Barak, who trails Netanyahu and Livni in the polls and whose Labor Party is expected to suffer heavy losses in next year’s elections, did not get the same warm reception that Netanyahu and Livni received from the crowd.