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Obama Won't Have to Kiss AIPAC's Ring -- Progressive Alternative to Hawkish Mideast Policies Emerges

A new wave of progressive Jewish activists are challenging the dominance of AIPAC and other hawkish groups on Gaza, Israeli settlers and even Iran.

Israel's ongoing assault on Gaza has pushed to the fore with ferocity one of the great campaign debates of 2008: How will Barack Obama approach the Palestinian-Israeli conflict? The president-elect has stated repeatedly that achieving a final settlement will be an administration priority, but beyond that oft-expressed campaign commitment swirls a constellation of increasingly urgent unknowns. Will he choose a Mideast envoy with at least a shred of credibility on both sides? Will he negotiate with Hamas? Will he spend the needed political capital to revive the rotting corpse of the peace process? Is resuscitation even possible?

Normally, a very constricted Beltway political wisdom on Israel, as embodied by American Israel Public Affairs Committee, would set and guard the parameters of the debate over these questions. But the landscape of organized Jewish political power in America is changing. Even as John Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt were coming under heavy fire for their 2006 analysis of the traditional American Israel Lobby, a liberal pro-Israel countermovement was forming in utero. Today, that movement is not only walking and talking, it is mounting a vigorous challenge to the dominance of traditional groups like AIPAC and the Anti-Defamation League. Together, with a growing number of voices within the foreign policy community, it is pushing Obama to initiate a strong and fresh approach to the region during his busy first 100 days.

As we wait to see how this debate shapes up, it's worth revisiting what we know about Barack Obama. In his personal life, he has exposed himself to both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide like few other incoming presidents. At the University of Chicago, he cultivated a friendship with the Palestinian American scholar Rashid Khalidi, through whom he also came to know the late Edward Said. He visited the slums of Ramallah in the West Bank on his own initiative, after which he told an audience in Muscatine, Iowa, "Nobody is suffering more than the Palestinian people." During the primaries and presidential campaign, these facts fueled the hopes of Palestinians and Americans hungry for a more balanced approach to the region. It also became grist for Republican (and Likud) fear and smear campaigns that warned Obama was an Israel-hating stalking horse for Hamas and a kissing cousin of Louis Farrakhan.

Obama neutralized these smear campaigns all too effectively. Terrified that the attacks would go viral faster than his dismissals, Obama famously tracked hard right upon clinching the Democratic nomination. His first act as nominee was to visit AIPAC and affirm his commitment to the U.S.-Israeli "special relationship," cemented by $30 billion in no-strings military aid over the next decade. After one of Obama's informal advisers, the highly respected Robert Malley of the International Crisis Group, came under right-wing assault for holding meetings with Hamas officials, he was quickly and quietly allowed to "resign." In November, came Hillary Rodham Clinton's appointment and word that the hawkish former Middle East envoy Dennis Ross is a leading candidate to fill that position again.

Most recently, the president-elect has maintained a controversial silence in response to Israel's invasion of Gaza. For those around the world who had expected at least a cursory statement of concern or condemnation, this silence has been deafening.

"Palestinian circles have increasingly looked at Obama with skepticism throughout his campaign and into the transitional period," says Toufic Haddad, a Palestinian American activist and co-author of Between the Lines: Israel, the Palestinians, and the U.S. War on Terror. "Palestinians were willing, perhaps desperate, to believe in his calls for 'change,' but the margin of tolerance for his rhetoric has faded. His recent declaration that 'there is only one president' ring hollow when Arab satellite stations have closely followed his political platform and noted his vocal positions during this transition period on both domestic and international issues."