Uri Avnery: Yes, You Can!
Yes, You Can!
Uri Avnery, Gush Shalom
IN JULY 2004, the convention of the Democratic Party was about to nominate John Kerry as its candidate for President. The organizing committee had to decide who would deliver the keynote speech. In the American tradition, that speech sets the tone for the whole convention.
"Perhaps we should have a black speaker this time?" someone suggested.
"Good idea," the chairman responded. "But who?"
Then someone, in a hesitant voice, said that he had met a young guy with a funny name in Chicago. He is black and an excellent orator. "Maybe we could try him?"
I don't know whether such a conversation did take place. If it did, that someone made history.
"GIVE ME marshals who have luck!" Napoleon once exclaimed.
There are people who are lucky because they know how to grab luck with their two hands and run with it. It is a matter of talent. Barack Obama is such a person.
His speech at that convention, only four years ago, was a sensation. It inspired his afflicted party and all of America. He brought an uplifting message, a message of hope, and, most of all, a unifying message. His main motif was: Let's unify America again!
It appeared that from the hundreds of possible messages, this was the one that touched the heart of the torn American nation. Between speaker and audience a contact was established - the mystic contact that every orator strives for, and only a few achieve. It is the connection with the mysterious thing that the German philosopher called the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the age.
Obama sensed that he had connected with the American psyche. From that moment on, he did not let go of that message. He stuck to it throughout the long election campaign. It brought him victory.
THAT WAS not easy. As somebody who has managed several Infinitely smaller election campaigns, I know how difficult it is to fix a central theme - and even more difficult to stick to it yourself.
In the course of an election campaign there are countless temptations to divert from the central message in order to react to stuff that happens, seize passing opportunities, respond to the opponent's attacks. It is hard to rein oneself in, to stay the course.
This week, many people extolled Obama's campaign. I am not sure that all of them quite understood how right they are. He remained cool when he could have got angry, could have responded sharply to defamation and insults and paid back in the same coin. He didn't. He remained solid as a rock to the end. John McCain, on the other hand, did not stick to his chosen persona - that of war hero, nice guy, symbol of decency. Several times he stooped to defamation. He brought with him that vulgar purveyor of invective, Sarah Palin. At the very last moment he allowed his followers in Florida to publish a preposterous ad that accused Obama of being a friend of Fidel Castro and of conspiring to turn the US into a second Cuba. For that alone he deserved to lose, and lose he did.
Obama did not pursue luck. Luck pursued him. The Palin phenomenon, a quite extraordinary act of folly by his opponent, brought him the votes of women. The economic collapse that occurred at the height of the campaign assured him of victory. All components of American society were crying out for an uplifting message, a message of salvation.
IN HUNDREDS of places around the world, rejoicing crowds poured into the streets to express their delight at the election results. In those moments, the contact of the US with the world, which had been cut by the clumsy hand of Bush, was renewed.
In Tel-Aviv, no such celebration took place. Throughout Israel, there was a mood of apprehension. Official Israel was seriously worried about the new man.
If there had been a celebration in the central square of Tel-Aviv, I would certainly have taken part. But my joy would not have been unalloyed, because I would have remembered what happened in the same square some nine years earlier. That was when our Barak, Ehud, won the elections. The country heaved a sigh of relief, much as the US did this week. It felt like a day of deliverance. Binyamin Netanyahu's term in office had been an unmitigated disaster, a nightmare of corruption, polarization and utter failure. Barak would be our savior. A hundred thousand jubilant people streamed into Rabin Square, without waiting to be called. They danced, sang, rejoiced and listened attentively to the speech of Barak the Redeemer.
Everybody knows what happened next. Within a few months the public came to loathe Barak, he failed in all respects and buried all that had been built by Yitzhak Rabin. The public turned away from him and passed the crown to Ariel Sharon. The whole episode lasted less than two years.
I hope with all my heart that nothing like that will happen to the American Barack. But this week, many people here will remember that chapter. Today, in a few hours, many people will stream again into the square - the same square - in order to take part in the annual memorial meeting for Yitzhak Rabin, the Prime Minister who was assassinated in this square, which now bears his name. The main speaker is - you may not believe it - Ehud Barak.
IN THREE months time, general elections will take place in Israel. No Barack Obama of ours will be standing.
Obama is a great politician. According to my definition, a great politician is a politician who does not look like a politician. Like Abe Lincoln, like Mahatma Gandhi, like Franklin Delano Roosevelt, like David Ben-Gurion, all of them great players of the political game, politicians from head to foot. But they did not look it. I think Obama is like that, too.
In Israel, the man who hopes to win, Binyamin Netanyahu, is the very opposite. He oozes sleazy politics from every pore. In his last term as Prime Minister, he was an utter failure. If he wins, nothing will change for the better.
Ehud Barak is another antithesis of the American Barack. Like Netanyahu and Tzipi Livni, he belongs to the "white" Ashkenazi elite. He has no emotional or other connection with the minorities. He is a militarist through and through. He exploited, for example, the night of Obama's election, when the attention of the whole world was riveted there, to violate the cease-fire and carry out a provocative military action in the Gaza Strip.
There remains Tzipi Livni. Has some of the stardust of Obama become attached to her? Hard to say. She is not a great orator. She is no orator at all in fact, which many people hold to her credit. But she promised "new politics". She has not been connected with corruption scandals, like the incumbent Prime Minister and both Netanyahu and Barak. She has no military aura. Her term as Foreign Minister has given her some credibility as a diplomat.
The one thing that unites almost all Israelis is the importance of maintaining good relations with the US. Everybody knows that the present Israeli policy is possible only as long as there is unstinting American support. Among the three candidates, Tzipi Livni looks like the one most likely to be able to work with the new President. The election of Obama can help her own election, if she knows how to utilize it.
THE QUESTION is: what policy will Obama adopt vis-à-vis Israel?
Jerusalem is worried, but the spokesmen comfort themselves - and the public - by saying (as the Hebrew expression goes) that "the demon is not so terrible". The new Congress is different from the last one as far as the balance of power is concerned, but its fear of the pro-Israel lobby will be unabated. True, the influence of the Zionist Evangelicals will be much diminished, but AIPAC is alive and kicking, and its kicks will be as painful as ever.
Whoever will be the new Secretary of State and the other ministers, the Israeli Prime Minister will have direct access to the Oval Room. The new doorkeeper, who bears the ringing Israeli name Rahm Immanuel (Rahm means high, Immanuel means God with Us), is the son of an Irgun underground veteran. Rahm grew up in a Jewish home, speaks Hebrew and rushed to the aid of the Israeli army during the first Gulf War. I don't know his views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but he certainly will not block the path of the Israeli Prime Minister to the President.
If there is a change, it will probably be slow and gradual. But that doesn't mean it won't be significant.
There is no chance for progress towards Israeli-Palestinian peace without American pressure on the Israeli government. That has been true for decades, and that remains true today.
All the American Presidents after Dwight Eisenhower have been afraid of exerting such pressure. Those who tried, like Richard Nixon at the beginning of his term, quickly drew back. The only exception was Bush the Father, or rather his Secretary of State James Baker, but that pressure (on the pocket) did not last long.
To be effective, American pressure does not need to be brutal. It should be gentle, but firm and consistent. This may suit Obama's temperament.
If the new American administration decides to reassess the American national interest in the Middle East and comes to the conclusion that Israeli-Arab peace is an essential requirement of the American post-Bush policy, then the new President must inform our new Prime Minister of this fact and ask politely but unequivocally for a freeze on the settlements and a start of new negotiations - this time not just to fill time, but to attain final agreement in 2009.
Many Israelis would thank him for that. Quite possibly, our next Prime Minister would also thank him in the hidden recesses of his (or her) heart.
Will the new American President do so? Is Barack Obama able to do so?
There is only one possible answer: Yes, you can!
Uri Avnery is a journalist, peace activist, former member of the Knesset, and leader of Gush Shalom. He is a regular contributor to Scoop. You can email correspondence to correspondence @ gush - shalom . org (without the spaces)