In Israeli Campaign, Candidates Imitate Obama's Tactics, Invoke His Name

Binyamin Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party and Tzipi Livni's centrist Kadima party each try to build a coalition government after general elections, in which neither obtained the 61-seat bloc necessary to gain control of the parliament and become prime minister.

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By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 5, 2009

JERUSALEM, Feb. 4 -- Israelis are still not sure what to make of President Obama. But less than a week before Israel holds national elections, he looms large on the campaign trail, with candidates borrowing his tactics and debating who can best work with him as he seeks a Middle East peace deal.

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, running a close second in the polls, has been most conspicuous in invoking Obama. A relative newcomer to politics, she presents herself as a fresh alternative to her chief competitors, both of whom are older men who have held Israel's top job before.

On the stump, she invites Israelis to "vote for change." Her campaign distributes T-shirts emblazoned with the made-up word "Believni." And she brags that unlike the race's front-runner, former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, she could partner with Obama in pursuing a peace accord with the Palestinians.

"The American people voted for hope," Livni told an audience of college students recently. "This is also possible in the state of Israel."

But the Netanyahu campaign answers with its own T-shirt: "No, She Can't." The leader of the right-wing Likud party has insisted that he is the real change agent in the race, ready to turn the page on years of failed governance by Livni's centrist Kadima party. While he argues that he can work with Obama, Netanyahu also answers Israeli anxieties about the new administration in Washington with promises not to compromise Israel's security just because the U.S. president wants a deal.

The outcome of Tuesday's elections could bear heavily on Obama's chances of achieving what he has said is one of his top foreign policy goals: a negotiated settlement to end the decades-long conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. At the moment, Netanyahu and other right-leaning politicians who have been skeptical of U.S.-backed peace talks are favored. Livni and those on the left, who are more amenable to negotiations, are struggling to catch up.

The focus on Obama as the election approaches reflects the depth of Israeli dependence on support from the United States, which is Israel's biggest backer. Israelis regard Obama with apprehension, concerned that the pro-Israel stance he took during the 2008 campaign may not be genuine. But Israeli politicians, seeing the passion he cultivated among Americans, have also sought to imitate Obama at a time when they are, as a whole, poorly regarded by the Israeli public.

Israelis have widely panned this year's campaign. The candidates refused to debate one another and have held relatively few rallies. Surveys show that interest is low.

To inject energy into the race, some of the parties have looked to Obama's example, even though they may not have much in common with him ideologically. The ultra-Orthodox Shas party, for instance, has a familiar campaign slogan: "Yes, we can." The party has printed thousands of bumper stickers that feature the phrase in big blue letters, along with the small-type addendum: "with God's help."

The party's chairman, Eli Yishai, said Shas adopted Obama's slogan to draw a link between the new U.S. president's accomplishments as an African American and the Israeli party's roots in the country's minority Mizrahi community, also known as Sephardic Jews. The Mizrahi are Jews from Middle Eastern or North African descent who have faced discrimination in Israel by the dominant Ashkenazi community, whose members are of Eastern European origin.

"Obama made black people in the United States proud, and we decided to sharpen our message and give a sense of self-respect and dignity to the Mizrahi public," Yishai said.

Shas, however, does not share Obama's enthusiasm for a Middle East peace deal: The party repeatedly threatened to bring down the Israeli government last year if the status of Jerusalem, a core sticking point in the conflict, even came up during negotiations with the Palestinians.


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