So, Obama, can we?

Wrote this together with Herb Keinon

It was the signature line of the Obama campaign, a line that said nothing but signified everything: “Yes, we can.”

It was a line that US President-elect Barack Obama, preacher-like, majestically weaved through his early campaign speeches; a line he used as a refrain to build up, crescendo-like, to the conclusion of his victory speech.

It was a line that appeared in blue placards by the thousands at Obama rallies and that was put to music in a video featuring A-list celebrities.

And now, with Obama about to be inaugurated, millions of Americans and people from around the world will be asking, “So, nu, can we?” Or, more accurately, “Can he?” Can he really, as promised, change the system, repair the world and transform the way Washington does business?

Israel is one place where that question is being asked with particular interest and concern, simply because our fate and the fate of the US are so intertwined. Here government officials and the average Rafi will be asking – each in their own way – the question of moment: Can we count on Obama?

In other words, first of all, can we count on maintenance of the current level of US support and assistance?

Yes, we can. Even if, in an impossible-to-imagine worst-case scenario, Obama wanted to fundamentally change the US-Israeli relationship, it is unlikely he would be able to do so.

Eran Lerman, director of the Israel and Middle East Office of the American Jewish Committee, has pointed out that Obama does want to fundamentally change the US, to reform the country. To do that, he is going to need to go to Capitol Hill and build coalitions. And coalition-building in Washington is good for Israel because Israel has many friends on the Hill who could be expected to link one issue to the next.

Can we trust an Obama administration to stand by us in our time of need?

Yes, we can. Unless, of course, we elect an extreme right-wing government that – completely unprovoked – initiates a war with the entire Arab world.

Can we fly over Iraqi airspace to hit Iran’s nuclear facilities?

No, we can’t.

Can we ask America to look the other way while our jets find another way into Iran?

No, we can’t.

Can we expect America to do the job for us in Iran?

No, we can’t.

Can we count on American early warning systems ahead of Iranian missile launches?

Yes, we can. In fact, they are already here. We can also expect the 120 US soldiers operating that system to keep their eyes on our air force, so that there are no surprises, like a sudden, massive flight eastward.

Can we expect America to negotiate with Iran without preconditions?

Yes, we can, and we are not going to like it.

Indeed, the first public signs of disagreement on this issue emerged right after Obama’s electoral victory when Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni made clear Israel was opposed to those direct contacts at this time. She said on Israel Radio that Obama’s stated readiness to talk to Iran was potentially counterproductive to efforts to persuade Teheran to curb its nuclear program.

“We live in a neighborhood in which sometimes dialogue – in a situation where you have brought sanctions, and you then shift to dialogue – is liable to be interpreted as weakness,” she said.

Can we expect America to continue leading the efforts to impose sanctions on Iran?

Yes, we can. In fact, there are those who argue that the sanctions tool will be much more effective in Obama’s hands than it was in the hands of President George W. Bush.

According to this argument, the night Obama won the election, America’s stature in Europe went up 25 percent. There are players in Europe who didn’t want to cooperate with Bush, simply because he was Bush, but who will have an interest in getting off on the right foot with Obama. One way to do this would be to forcefully back US economic sanctions. The question is whether Obama will make it a priority.

Can we expect continued forbearance if Israel continues to drag its feet on removing settlement outposts to avoid a confrontation with far-right settlers?

No, we can’t. The new administration is unlikely to take as patient or subdued a stance to Israel’s unwillingness, or inability, to carry out commitments it made to the US.

Can we expect Obama to engage in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking issues early on in his administration?

Yes, we can… and no, we can’t. While it is likely Obama will set up a Middle East team relatively early, it is unlikely it will have too much to do before late spring or early summer, primarily because it will have to wait to see who Israel elects, and what kind of government is set up.

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