But did you know he's a Muslim?
By Bradley Burston
Mel Levine, a key Mideast policy advisor to Barack Obama, sits in the genteel courtyard of the American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem. The former U.S. congressman is some 12,000 kilometers away from home, but even here, the viral rumor campaign is never far away. "Oddly enough, I've run into any number of people who, when I say I'm for Obama, say: 'Oh - did you know he's a Muslim?'
"A couple of Israelis I've spoken with - very smart, well-educated, thoughtful Israelis - told me that yesterday. I was a little taken aback, but why should I be surprised, when Americans tell me that all the time?"
Levine has seen his fair share of Israel-oriented American political infighting, having served as senior Mideast policy advisor to both Al Gore and John Kerry, as a board member of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) lobbying organization for six years, and as the author of the pre-Oslo Levine amendment, which conditioned any U.S. recognition of Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization on the PLO's recognition of Israel's right to exist and its rejection of terror.
But he has never seen the likes of the ongoing mass e-mail campaigns, which have leveled a succession of allegations against Obama, branding the senator a secret anti-Semite, a closet Muslim who took his official oath of office with his hand on the Koran instead of the Bible, and a disciple of fiery Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, further alleging that several of Obama's Mideast policy advisors are pro-Palestinian haters of Israel.
"I've been involved in politics for quite a long time, and I've never quite seen anything like this before," Levine says of the e-mail campaigns. "It's offensive to me, particularly as a Jew who cares very deeply about Israel and bipartisan American support for Israel, because the e-mails are filled with lies, innuendos, distortions and misrepresentations about someone who has been, and is, an extremely good friend of Israel, a strong supporter of Israel, a good friend of the Jewish community, and someone who has been a leader in helping to repair black-Jewish relations in the United States in a courageous way."
E-mails portraying Obama as bad for the Jews appeared in great numbers ahead of hard-fought primaries in states with significant Jewish populations, such as California, New York and Ohio.
The Obama camp has worked intensively to counter e-mails hinting at or "proving" the Democratic senator's ties to Islam, among them the photo of a turban-clad Obama and a Fox News video clip of radio talk show host Bill Cunningham saying, "His parents called him Barack Hussein Obama, not me."
But the pro-Obama counterattack has been so vigorous that concerns have been raised of a possible backlash by U.S. Muslim voters, upset that Islam itself is being viewed as a stain. The responses of Muslims have varied, Levine notes. "Some have said 'it's really regrettable,' of the efforts expended to demonstrate that Obama is, in fact, a Christian. And some have said that it's not popular in America these days to be viewed as a Muslim."
Although Levine says Republicans are behind the bulk of the e-mails, and despite his long-standing fondness for Hillary and Bill Clinton, he is particularly incensed about the anti-Obama charges he traces to the New York senator's campaign. He bristles when asked about the comments of Clinton campaign senior advisor Ann Lewis, who recently suggested that Obama disavowed Farrakhan only when publicly induced to do so by Hillary Clinton, in Lewis' words, "in one of those moments of leadership."
"Ann should be ashamed of herself," responds Levine to the flap over Farrakhan, who has often been accused of anti-Semitism. "Ann is an old friend of mine, and she should be above that kind of inaccurate condescension." Obama "has been a consistent critic of Farrakhan throughout his career."
'I'm not a pacifist'
The night before speaking with Haaretz, Levine says he ate dinner with Israeli friends, one of whom asked him: "Would Obama be willing to use force to defend American interests?"
"I was astonished by the question. He's made it very, very clear, repeatedly, even in the speech that he made in 2002 opposing America's invasion of Iraq, which he gave basically to a group of pacifists. He said 'Let me be very clear. I'm not a pacifist. It's not that I don't believe in war. I don't believe in dumb wars.'"
Obama, Levine says, "fully understands that the greatest threat to Israel at this time is Iran, and that Iran's ability to obtain a nuclear weapon is completely unacceptable. He's made absolutely clear that his priorities with regard to Iran are to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, to stop Iran from continuing to support terror, and to stop Iran from threatening Israel's existence."
What differentiates Obama's approach is that he believes in a combination of "aggressive diplomacy" and a willingness to use force, Levine maintains. "He feels that if you have opened with aggressive diplomacy, it gives you better credibility with your friends, to help you to accomplish your objectives.
"If he uses both carrots and sticks, and says to the Iranian leadership, 'Look, if you do the things that we have been pressing you to do, you will be welcomed back into the community of nations. And if you don't do them, we keep all options on the table, including the use of military force.'" If Obama uses that approach at the outset, Levine says, he stands a much greater chance of getting Europe and the Arab nations "to support whatever sticks need to be used, if the carrots don't work."
Given the tenor of the e-mails, which suggest that Obama would readily negotiate with Hamas, Levine says that many people voice surprise when they learn of the senator's true stance. "He doesn't believe we should talk to or negotiate with Hamas until Hamas accepts the famous three conditions" (the third was that the PLO honor past UN decisions regarding Israel) which Levine himself wrote into U.S. law in 1983, barring the U.S. from negotiating with the PLO unless and until it accepted them. "Obama insists on those conditions."
Obama in Ramallah
If American primary campaigns are, to an extent, a clash of opposing advisors, the issue of who is advising Obama on the Middle East has become a centerpiece of the anti-Obama e-mails.
Even a seasoned political observer, Martin Peretz, editor in chief of the liberal magazine The New Republic, appears to have been taken in by the e-fueled rumors, writing of Obama and his advisors in late December: "And, frankly, I get the shudders since he has indicated that, among others, they would be Zbigniew Brzezinski - and Robert O. Malley.
"The most horrific name on Obama's list," Peretz added, "is Malley's" - referring to the former Arab-Israeli affairs aide to Bill Clinton whom Peretz would later describe as a "rabid hater of Israel." In a subsequent column, which said that Israel supporters could, in fact, trust Obama, Peretz acknowledged that "Malley is not and has never been a Middle East advisor to Barack Obama."
The Obama campaign has worked overtime to flatly deny that Brzezinski and Malley are advisors to the senator. At the same time, both the Clinton and Obama bandwagons continue to court endorsements seen as attractive to Jewish voters, with former U.S. ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk backing Clinton, and Indyk's successor, Daniel Kurtzer, now openly supporting Obama.
Levine himself acted as an advisor to Obama for six months before making the decision not only to advise him, but to endorse him. The decision, when it came, was wholehearted, he says. "One of the things that makes me as comfortable with him as I am is that I have now been with him enough times, and heard him enough times, spontaneously and personally and on his own, talk about his sacrosanct commitment to the security of Israel.
"And it doesn't matter where he is when he makes these statements," he adds. On one of the occasions when Obama spoke publicly of "America's unshakable commitment to Israel," he did so in Ramallah.
If Obama wins the Democratic nomination and faces Republican nominee Senator John McCain in November, what will his message to pro-Israel voters be?
Levine: "First of all, he references his consistent track record as one of Israel's very strong supporters, both in the Senate and before; he reminds people that nonpartisan groups like AIPAC have said that his record is perfect; then he talks about what he can accomplish that John McCain, as essentially a continuation of George Bush, cannot accomplish.
"Barack Obama is running, essentially, to radically alter George Bush's foreign policy, to re- engage America as a member in good standing of the community of nations, as a country which is not arrogant and focused on military preemption."
The moment Obama is sworn in as president of the United States, "America's image to the world is dramatically altered for the better," Levine says, adding that an Obama presidency would actually represent a return to traditional American values. "John McCain just doesn't have that ability, through no fault of his own. He is an American hero. But he's not a new face for the United States of America and around the world.
"Obama would strengthen America, strengthening America's ability to get our allies to assist in accomplishing our foreign policy objectives, one of the most important being support for Israel."
Turning to Israeli-Palestinian points of contention, Levine says: "What Obama has said is that these core issues need to be negotiated as a package in the context of a final negotiation, and that he doesn't want to prejudge how this final negotiating process will unfold.
"He has gone so far as to say that Israel must remain a Jewish state, thereby, I believe, essentially taking the right of return [for Palestinian refugees] off the table. But beyond that, it's been his view that the parties need to resolve, between themselves, how these major core issues get negotiated."
Outside the East Jerusalem hotel it is unseasonably warm, unseasonably beautiful, and eerily silent on the Friday morning after the Mercaz Harav yeshiva terrorist attack.
Asked to what extent he felt personally affected by the incident, Levine replies at once. "Totally. I always feel personally affected by what happens here, and especially when I am here.
"Look," he continues, his eyes welling up. "I'm an American, and I'm deeply committed to Israel's security. There's no city in the world I'd rather be in than Jerusalem, and I love it every moment I'm here.
"And when I'm having dinner at the home of very, very dear personal friends, two of my closest friends in the world, and sirens start going off, and every Israeli at the table knows that it means that Israelis have been killed, how can it not affect you?"
Uncharacteristically, Levine is at a loss. "I don't really know how to put it into words. I do get emotional at times like these."