June 7, 2008 | Commentary on Middle East, Arab-Israeli Conflict

The Real World: Iran and U.S. elections

Iran is emerging as a key issue in the U.S. 2008 presidential campaign. In his speech to the pro-Israel American Israel Public Affairs Committee - AIPAC - Democratic Sen. Barack Obama pushed all the right buttons, from keeping Jerusalem united as the capital of Israel, to calling for resurrection of the Jewish-African-American coalition from the 1960s.

Yet, Obama did not budge from his diplomatic strategy on dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat. He confirmed that he will sit down with the ayatollahs despite the fact that every diplomatic effort to stop the Iranian nuclear program has failed so far.

But while Obama knew that he needs to talk tough, the senator from Illinois is not likely to out-tough John McCain.

To use the phrase from the X-Files, a hugely popular sci-fi TV series, many American Jews "want to believe" that Obama miraculously turned pro-Israel.

Despite pledging support for Israel's security, Obama has a credibility gap among many voters in the American Jewish and pro-Israel Evangelical communities - important constituencies which may help determine the election's outcome in key states, such as Florida, Michigan, and California.

A key Obama adviser, Harvard professor Samantha Power, reportedly advocated sending U.S. troops to occupy Israel, the West Bank and Gaza to "enforce" peace. She wound up forced to resign from the campaign after calling Obama rival for the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton, a "monster," but is likely to come into a future Obama administration.

Robert Malley, a senior campaign aide on the Middle East, was let go because it was disclosed that he was talking to Hamas.

Obama also has been associated with a prominent Palestine Liberation Organization supporter and activist Prof. Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia University, as well as with Palestinian activists in Chicago.

During his campaign, far from renouncing that affiliation, according to media reports, Obama explained that he is not speaking out on behalf of the Palestinians now because he "is involved in a tough primary campaign."

Studies show that American Jews are flocking to McCain in great numbers - not only because he doesn't need to prove his pro-Israel credentials, but also because they recognize and trust his foreign and security policy expertise.

Iran and Israel are at the top of Washington agenda also because Israel's embattled Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is in town. He met with U.S. President George W. Bush while prosecutors back in Israel are reportedly considering an indictment which carries a prison term. Olmert is accused of taking $150,000 in cash from an American businessman during the years he was mayor of Jerusalem. This is the fifth investigation concerning his alleged corruption since taking office.

Olmert got Israel involved in negotiations on three fronts: with the Palestinian Authority, Hamas, and Syria. On all three tracks, Olmert seems to be doing to peace in 2008 what he did to war in 2006: fail.

While in his AIPAC keynote address on Tuesday Olmert waxed enthusiastic about the "peace process" with the Palestinian authority headed by Mahmoud Abbas, hailed talks with Syria over the Golan, and called Saudi Arabia a "responsible and moderate state," the reality is different.

Hamas does not want a deal with Israel because its patron, Iran, is against it, and because the Hamas leadership is justified only as long as the conflict continues.

Abbas has little popularity or control in the Palestinian street and most probably can't deliver a peace deal acceptable to both sides.

Hamas would win a West Bank presidential election if the polls were held today, and is already controlling Gaza with an iron fist.

Saudi Arabia had done nothing to recognize the Jewish state, to cause Hamas to moderate its position, or for that matter, to open the spigot to ease the pain of Americans and others at the gas pump - despite numerous pleas from Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson.

Syria does not want peace with Israel, because the price - a break with Iran, abandonment of Hezbollah, demilitarization of the Golan, no Lake Tiberias coastline, and normalization with the Jewish State - is too high.

Secondly, Syria is interested in improving relations with Washington, and Olmert cannot deliver - because he is on the way out, and because the Bush administration has only seven months in office left.

Most importantly, Damascus is unlikely to conclude peace because the Alawi regime in Damascus will lose its raison d'etre if its signs a peace deal with Israel. The moment it does, the majority of Syria's Sunnis may push it out.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's blood curdling rhetoric to wipe Israel off the map, high oil prices, Hamas rockets slamming daily into Israeli towns and villages, Lebanon inching further and further under Hezbollah's heel, and the faltering Israeli-Palestinian talks all assure that Middle East will remain a top priority of the U.S. presidential campaign.

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is senior research fellow in international energy security and Russian and Eurasian Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D. Visiting Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Policy in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

First Appeared in Middle East Times