When it comes to American policy vis-à-vis Israel, whoever takes the oath of office on Jan. 20, 2009 — be it John McCain or Barack Obama — will inherit an even more complicated and potentially dangerous political and security landscape than the scenario that awaited George W. Bush upon entering the White House.
"The next president of the United States will probably have to go directly from the inauguration to the situation room," said Michael B. Oren, author most recently of Power, Faith and Fantasy: America in the Middle East 1776 to the Present and senior fellow at the Shalem Center, a Jerusalem-based think tank.
Back in early 2001, the second intifada was already under way, following the breakdown of peace talks at Camp David the year before. Many in the Jewish community roundly criticized the Bush administration for initially eschewing heavily diplomatic involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, while others insisted that, by stepping back, the United States gave Israel some breathing room to conduct counterterrorism operations.
But with the splitting of the Palestinian polity — Hamas controls Gaza, and Fatah is nominally in charge of the parts of the West Bank under direct Palestinian control — the diplomatic landscape has only gotten murkier.
Nothing has altered the rules of the game in the region, however, like the emergence of Iran as a pre-eminent power, one that appears to have designs of wiping Israel off the map.
With the stakes so high, the question of which candidate would make a better match for the Jewish state has provoked an ongoing and bitter back-and-forth between surrogates, partisan Jewish groups like the Republican Jewish Coalition and the National Jewish Democratic Council, and the campaigns themselves.
And, with national polls indicating a virtual toss-up at this point and Jews constituting sizable voting blocks in key battleground states like Pennsylvania and Florida, the rancorous tone of the debate will surely continue.
Four years ago, Republicans claimed to be the party more sympathetic to Israel, while Democrats argued that the two parties are equally pro-Israel and that over-politicizing the issue harmed the Jewish community. During this campaign, however, Democrats have by and large gone on the attack as never before, claiming Bush's foreign policy — namely, the decisions to invade Iraq and refrain from "shuttle diplomacy" with the Israelis and Palestinians until last year — has weakened Israel's position.
Partisan rhetoric aside, what realistic policy options will await the next president? And do the two candidates and their respective running mates truly offer different visions of how America should conduct its foreign policy in Israel's neighborhood? How far apart, actually, are the two sides in terms of substance?
Oren, for one, thinks that "the candidates really do offer distinct platforms."
When it comes to Iran, Oren — who grew up in New Jersey and made aliyah in the 1970s — argued that the United States has four basic options: accept a nuclear Iran, step up economic sanctions, launch a military strike or lend support to an Israeli action.
In a number of statements, Obama has expressed far more willingness than McCain to engage in direct talks with Iran, although the Democrat has backed away from announcing his openness to meet with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during his first year in office, something for which he's been criticized by McCain as well has by his opponent in the primaries, Hillary Clinton.
Oren said McCain had favored the 2007 Kyl-Lieberman Iran Amendment that branded the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization. Obama opposed that measure on the grounds that it might be viewed as a stamp of approval for the Bush administration to use force and, instead, pushed his own Iran Sanctions Enabling Act, which meshes with his philosophy of using economic leverage to influence Tehran, which Senate Republicans appeared to have stalled for now.
Democrats have sought to portray McCain as "trigger-happy" — he once jokingly sang "Bomb Iran" to the tune of a Beach Boys song — and too eager to start a conflagration with Iran, although McCain has repeatedly expressed support for an approach that includes tougher sanctions.
Both candidates have said that Iran cannot be allowed to obtain nuclear weapons and that any deal with the Palestinians cannot endanger Israel's security. Oren said that each has pledged to help Israel maintain its military edge over its neighbors and has stressed that Arab states must recognize Israel in advance of further territorial concessions.
"The big difference between McCain and Obama that I see is one of timing," said the contributing editor at The New Republic. According to Oren, Obama advocates that America must first engage in substantive talks with Iran, before it can entertain any notions of force.
In his opinion, McCain believes the justification for an act of war already exists. If escalated sanctions don't succeed, he feels McCain would bypass dialogue and proceed directly to a military option.
Oren said that, according to Israeli intelligence reports, Iran could possess a nuclear weapon by the end of 2009. He believes Israel could benefit politically from the type of diplomacy that Obama hopes to conduct, but warned that it might not have the luxury of time.
Aaron David Miller, a former official with the U.S. State Department and author of The Too Much Promised Land: America's Elusive Search for Arab Israeli Peace, asserted that American policy won't be altered much by the outcome of the election. Miller — who served in both Republican and Democratic administrations — said that both McCain and Obama have essentially espoused a centrist approach for dealing with challenges in the region.
The Iranian Threat
In fact, Miller cautioned that the United States might not be able to exert a great deal of influence when it comes to shaping events, particularly concerning the Iranian threat and the prospects for an Israeli-Palestinian breakthrough.
"If diplomatic isolation doesn't work, then you are considering military action against another Muslim country," said Miller, a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. "We don't need a third war right now, we already have two of them."
His advice on the Israeli-Palestinian front? "Don't overreach. If they [the parties] are willing to get to serious business, then go for it. But don't go into this if you have any sense that the Israelis and the Palestinians aren't with you."
Jeremy Ben-Ami, executive director of J Street, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that advocates for an increased American diplomatic effort on the Iranian and Palestinian issues, said that the United States can ill afford to take a hands-off approach. He stated that there is time — a limited amount, albeit — for diplomacy to work in Iran and reason to hope that progress is possible between the Israelis and Palestinians.
"For us, the crux of the matter is whether or not the next president is really truly going to be personally and deeply engaged in the process of bringing the sides together and being personally committed from day one," said Ben-Ami, who served as a domestic policy adviser to President Bill Clinton.
While J Street has not endorsed a candidate, Ben-Ami said that "the Obama campaign is obviously a lot closer to the J Street position than what I hear from the McCain campaign … . It appears that the types of things that might happen first in a McCain administration would be militaristic, saber rattling."
Daniel Pipes, founder of the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum and a one-time adviser to Rudy Giuliani's failed presidential bid, has been critical of Obama in recent columns. But Pipes nonetheless asserted that Obama and McCain share the same fundamental understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"U.S. policy is based on false premises … [which] will remain in place whether it's McCain or Obama. Those false premises boil down to the idea that, in 1993, the Palestinians as a body politic accepted the existence of a Jewish sovereign state, and all that needed to be worked out was the details," said Pipes.
He stated that, while Obama might be more eager than McCain to bring the Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table, both would uphold the Bush administration policy of pushing for a Palestinian state.
And what should the presidential victor do to contain the Iranian nuclear threat?
"My preference would be to gear up the United States for an attack," Pipes replied. "In the hopes that that would … galvanize the outside world to put pressure on Iran to stop, so we don't have to do it. We have to send a signal of our intent."