In Israel, Some Anxieties About Obama

How will the United States Shift on Iran, Palestinians, Mideast Peace?

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JERUSALEM—Israelis aren't so sure what to make of a President Barack Obama, particularly when it comes to dealing with Iran.

Sometimes dialogue "can be interpreted as weakness," Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said in a radio interview, referring to Obama's stated intention to try diplomacy with Iran. She revealed what seems to be Israeli leaders' main worry about Obama—that he will not be as antagonistic toward Iran as President Bush has been or as most Israelis assumed a President John McCain would have been.

This is one reason, though not the only one, why Israel, in contrast to much of the rest of the world, greeted Obama's victory with dry eyes.

Except on the far right, however, the concern is muted. Soon-to-depart Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and other government officials have expressed confidence that the U.S.-Israeli alliance will remain rock-solid, a pledge Obama took pains to repeat during the campaign.

After President Bush's embrace of Israel as a front-line ally in the war on terror, Israeli leaders are banking not on change from the incoming president but on continuity.

It's no secret that Israelis, by and large, wanted McCain to win; a poll a week before the election showed them favoring him by a 3-to-2 ratio—a narrower lead, though, than McCain had held here in earlier surveys.

In sharp contrast to American Jews, who voted better than 3-to-1 for Obama, many Israelis identify more with the Republicans' Us vs. Them approach to foreign policy than with the Democrats' more nuanced view.

Then there is the name issue. Obama's middle name, Hussein, didn't do him much good among many Israelis. Nor did his associations with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, radical-turned-educator William Ayers, and Rashid Khalidi, a controversial Columbia University scholar of Palestinian descent.

"I think he'll be more sympathetic to the Arabs than to us. When push comes to shove, he'll side with them because of his Muslim background," said Moshe Ozer, a labor contractor waiting for a flight at Ben-Gurion Airport. Ozer refused to believe Obama is a Christian.

Sheri Oz, a family therapist who was waiting for her daughter's flight, said she has no problem with Obama's middle name. But she has been anxious "about his associations, like with some of those Palestinian academics who'd be happy if Israel just disappeared." Her attitude softened upon learning that Obama's first appointment, as future White House chief of staff, was Rahm Emanuel, who volunteered in Israel during the 1991 Gulf War. (Emanuel's Jerusalem-born father was a member of the same pre-state Zionist guerrilla movement, the Irgun, as Livni's father.) "Now, I'm ready to be happily surprised," said Oz.

As much as Israelis want Obama to go easy on the change stuff with them, Palestinians are more than eager for it. "We hope the two-state vision would be transferred from a vision to a realistic track immediately," said a statement from Palestinian negotiator Sa'eb Erekat, making clear his impatience with Bush's "vision" that never got off the ground.

In one of the bustling shops on the Arab side of Jerusalem's Old City, cellphone dealer Ra'ed Sublaban said, "All the people here are happy because they hated the old [Bush] administration. Bill Clinton was different, and I think Obama will be similar to Clinton."

Hassan Alka, a Palestinian construction worker whose view of Bush was succinct and unprintable, believed the Palestinians now will have a friend in the White House. "Obama is the best," Alka said, "because he's a Muslim."

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