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Cohen: No Manchurian candidate
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NEW YORK: I believe Barack Obama is a strong but not uncritical supporter of Israel. That is what the Middle East needs from an American leader: the balance implied by a two-state solution.

Yet it's a tough position for Obama to hold in this presidential campaign because his Jewish credentials are under intense scrutiny.

On Jan. 22, with Gaza sealed and the suffering of Palestinians prompting calls for a UN Security Council statement deploring their plight, Obama wrote a strongly worded letter of support for Israel.

"The Security Council should clearly and unequivocally condemn the rocket attacks against Israel, and should make clear that Israel has a right to defend itself against such actions," Obama wrote to Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Otherwise, he urged, it should not speak at all.

The Security Council remained silent; Obama's still uncertain standing with Jews in the United States and Israel was strengthened. But rumors, many of them scurrilous, continue to swirl. Most have questioned the degree of his commitment to Israel.

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 "The biggest problem is a lack of familiarity, an exotic name and malicious assaults," David Axelrod, who is Obama's chief strategist, told me. "There's no ambiguity in his position on the Middle East."

The attacks, many anonymous e-mails, have woven together various threads - his middle name "Hussein;" schooling in Muslim Indonesia; his Chicago pastor's embrace of the anti-Semitic leader of the Nation of Islam, Louis Farrakhan; and his calls for dialogue with Iran - to portray Obama as the Muslim Manchurian candidate.

Leading American Jewish organizations have denounced these "hateful e-mails." Obama has condemned Farrakhan's anti-Semitism and made clear he disagrees with his pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., whose magazine honored Farrakhan last year. But he's not broken with Wright, the man who brought him to his Christian convictions.

Some doubts clearly persist among U.S. Jews, who account for just 2 percent of the population but a higher percentage of voters, and one with a large degree of influence. On a recent four-day trip to Florida, David Harris, the executive director of the American Jewish Committee, encountered the following questions:

Did Obama really attend a madrassa? What are his relations with Wright? Why does he have former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski (viewed as cool toward Israel) on his foreign policy team?

"You could sum the concerns up as 'does Obama feel Israel in his kishkas?, " Harris told me, using the Yiddish word for guts. "And does he have the steel and spine for the tough moments or believe diplomacy is the be-all and end-all of international relations?"

Such worries have surfaced in Israel, where Danny Ayalon, a former ambassador to the United States, has described Obama's candidacy as cause for "concern."

Still, many American Jews, particularly younger ones, are gravitating to Obama. Hillary Clinton, whose pro-Israel credentials are watertight, took close to two-thirds of the Jewish vote in the New Jersey and New York primaries. But in California the Jewish vote was almost equally shared, and in Connecticut and Massachusetts Obama got more Jewish votes.

"There's a generational transition," said Douglas Bloomfield, a former legislative director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. "The baby boomers are now the older generation and Clinton is their candidate. Younger Jews are more pro-Obama. The majority wants a two-state peace, but is intimidated by a vocal right wing."

Obama should resist such intimidation in the long term. I understand the immediate political calculus that makes a forthright statement of his pro-Israel sentiments critical. That is why, in a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee last year, he did not even mention Jewish settlements.

That's also why when Obama made an accurate statement in Iowa last year to the effect that "Nobody's suffering more than the Palestinian people," he was forced to adjust the phrase to suggest the suffering was self-inflicted. And that's why his letter to Khalilzad was so down-the-line pro-Israeli.

I don't care. Obama has to play hardball right now. John McCain, the presumptive Republican candidate, also sent a letter - the day after Obama's - calling for the UN to condemn "the terrorist tactics employed by Hamas."

Foreign policy will roar back once this is a straight Republican-Democrat fight, and a Democrat who's going to win has to be strong on core American defense principles, which include Israel's security.

Obama feels Israel in his kishkas, all right. Equally, he feels dialogue, which has been his way of getting things done since he became a community organizer in Chicago in the 1980s. "He'd be actively involved from Day 1," said Axelrod.

Jews should get over the scaremongering: Obama is no Manchurian. Nor is he blind to the fact that backing Israel is not enough if the backing gives carte blanche for the subjugation of another people.

By Roger Cohen

>  IHT.com


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