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.
Netanyahu's backers in Likud are similarly wary of talks aimed at creating a Palestinian state side by side with Israel. But that has not stopped the party from designing a Web site that almost exactly mimics the Obama campaign site.
Livni's senior campaign strategist, Lior Chorev, said that like Obama, Livni had made her site a crucial part of her campaign, using it to organize events and to present her personal blog, in which she writes of life on the campaign trail.
Chorev said that while Netanyahu and Labor Party leader Ehud Barak are familiar faces, most Israelis know little about Livni, and the campaign's challenge has been to introduce her to a wider audience.
That effort has included highlighting her status as, potentially, Israel's first female prime minister in 35 years. The campaign has invited reporters into her home, and lately she has interspersed her usual tough talk about battling the Gaza Strip's Hamas rulers with more personal commentary about the challenge of being a mother.
"She's running a feminine campaign," Chorev said. "It's a different kind of campaign, and it took some time to acknowledge that. But what we're saying is that being a mother is not being weak. It's being able to protect and to nurture."
The approach appears aimed at the quarter of the Israeli electorate that remains undecided, more than half of whom are women.
But such a strategy carries risks in Israel, where the military and masculinity are important parts of the culture. Barak, a much-decorated army veteran who once led the military and now serves as defense minister, recently derided Livni's statements as "superfluous chatter from people who have never held a weapon in their hands." (Livni served in the army but not in combat.)
Likud, meanwhile, has launched a billboard campaign that shows a grimacing Livni beside the caption "It's too big for her."
The party's leaders have warned that a Livni government would give in to pressure from Obama and cede East Jerusalem plus large portions of the West Bank, which many Israelis call Judea and Samaria.
"Anyone who lets Judea and Samaria become a launching pad for rockets on Tel Aviv cannot be a leader," said Moshe Yaalon, a Likud candidate for the Israeli parliament and a former military chief of staff.
Despite the Likud rhetoric on the campaign trail, Netanyahu himself signed a limited accord with the Palestinians that led to divided control of the West Bank city of Hebron during his tenure as prime minister in the late 1990s. And it was Likud's first prime minister, Menachem Begin, who made peace with the Egyptians by giving up the Sinai Peninsula.
Livni is a former Likud member who argues that a Palestinian state is a necessity if Israel wants to continue as a Jewish, democratic state. She served last year as Israel's lead negotiator during the inconclusive Annapolis peace talks with the Palestinian Authority.
Tamar Hermann, a political scientist who specializes in Israeli public opinion, said Livni's history of waffling on crucial issues has left Israelis unconvinced that she is strong enough for the top job. Most prominently, Livni threatened to resign in protest amid revelations of mismanagement by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert following the 2006 war against the Lebanese Hezbollah movement, and then stayed in office.
"She's not projecting a sense of power," Hermann said. "It might be gender-based, but it is also personality-based."
Livni has responded to the criticism from Barak and Netanyahu by denouncing it as "chauvinistic." Although she was known before the campaign for her stern demeanor, rarely cracking a smile, Livni has continued to play up her soft side.
At a speech before hundreds of members of Israel's Ethiopian community in the Tel Aviv suburb of Petah Tikva this week, she made a point of bringing two young women up to the stage.
"When I grow up, I want to be prime minister, just like you," said 9-year-old Nitzam Bitawi, reading from a letter she had written to Livni and wearing a pink T-shirt emblazoned with Livni's picture.
"Don't let anyone tell you you're not capable," Livni replied.
Afterward, Zehava Sisay said she was conflicted. She had heard that Livni wasn't strong enough to take on Israel's enemies. But, cradling her 4-month-old baby in her arms, Sisay said she was also intrigued by the idea of a woman running the country.
"The other two have already failed," she said, referring to Barak and Netanyahu. "Maybe, like Obama, we should give her a chance."
Special correspondent Samuel Sockol contributed to this report.