Yes, I can

Now that the election season is over, I want to share a personal revelation that I think can help bring Obama voters and McCain voters closer together. But first, a
little background.

I’ve always loved a good conversation, especially with people whose views are different from mine. But this year, I have been vacillating between McCain and Obama, and without taking a clear stand, I found it hard to have any decent debates. I haven’t met too many other vacillators.

I have, however, met plenty of hysterical partisans.

My McCain buddies have sent me countless e-mails warning me that an Obama victory might jeopardize the survival of Israel and endanger America, and my Obama buddies have been certain that the future of the Western world hangs on their man’s victory.

If I tried to mention at a McCain table how an Obama victory would re-brand America globally, or how his ability to look at different sides of an issue might be a good thing for the country, or how there are advisers around him like Dennis Ross who could hardly be accused of being anti-Israel, I would invariably get an alarmed response demonizing the man. Conversation over.

If I expressed concern at an Obama table about his lack of experience, or his relationships with unsavory characters, or his politically convenient flip-flops on major issues, or if I brought up McCain’s experience and independent nature, I would invariably get an indictment of McCain’s war-like ways, or a demonizing of Sarah Palin. Conversation over.

People didn’t just pick sides. They dug their heels into thick mud and barely moved. Unless you were surrounded by like-minded people where you could just pile on, you either had very short conversations or screaming matches.

So I came up with a secret plan. I shut my mouth. Instead of telling people how I felt about the candidates, I channeled the big “O.”

Not the big O of Obama, but the big O of Observer. I became an observer and a listener. I soaked it up. I asked questions. I observed how people argued, what set them off and how people on both sides acted in similar ways. I learned that when emotions run so high and opinions are so intense, you learn a lot just by observing and studying the show.

And study I did. I read important writers on both sides. I read National Review and the Nation. I read the key blogs. I would go from the passion of Andrew Sullivan and Joan Walsh on the Obama side to the passion of Victor Davis Hanson and Mark Steyn on the McCain side. Somewhere in the middle, I would hear the moderating voice of David Brooks.

Because I have many friends whom I respect who are strongly anti-Obama, I tried to muster some animosity towards the man — but I couldn’t. Maybe it was because I remember how my mother cried on a November day in 1963 when she heard on the radio that President John Kennedy had died. I was a little kid, having dinner with my family in Morocco, and all I remember thinking was: Why would my mother cry for someone who lives so far away?

No matter how many alarming blog posts I read against Obama, I simply couldn’t ignore the few billion people around the world who might soon look up in admiration to our African American president in the White House — just like my mother looked up to Kennedy from her house in Morocco.

And no matter how many brilliant and valid critiques I would hear against Senator McCain, I couldn’t stop thinking about the decent and heroic American that David Foster Wallace wrote about so lyrically when he covered McCain’s “Straight Talk Express” for Rolling Stone magazine in the 2000 election.

Back and forth I went, seeing the power and weaknesses of both sides. Instead of engaging in exhausting debates, I channeled my passion away from ideology and toward understanding.

And by the time the winner was announced, I had received an unintended blessing from my dispassionate journey. A personal revelation, if you will.

It struck me that no matter who runs the White House — even after a historic victory that my grandchildren will talk about — they still won’t be able to help me with the most important things in my life: How I raise and educate my kids, how I deal with my friends and community, how ethically I lead my life, how I give back to the world, how I grow spiritually, how I stand up for Israel and the Jewish people, how I live an eco-friendly life — in short, how I help my country by taking personal responsibility for my own little world.

Those things are not so much “Yes, We Can,” but more “Yes, I Can.”

In fact, I have a wish that our eloquent new president will have the audacity to tell the nation that, for most of us, 99 percent of our happiness is in our own hands. While we await universal health care, we should take better care of our bodies and our health and save the country billions. While we await a better education system, we should read to our kids every night and teach them the values that will make them productive citizens. While we await government action to fight global warming, we should go green in our own lives. While we await a fix to the economic meltdown, we should learn to budget and spend within our means, and, for those of us who can afford to help, have the kindness to help those who have fallen through the cracks of our debt-ridden safety net.

The truth is, despite the headiness of this historic moment, neither President Obama nor President McCain could do for us what we need to do for ourselves and for our country. If our new president can inspire us to understand this truth, he will bring about the real change we need.

A Costly Win

Since the start of Israel’s election campaign last October,
the flamboyant leader of the secular-rights Shinui Party had been promising a
secular revolution in Israel.

This week Yosef “Tommy” Lapid seemed to have a golden
opportunity to fulfill his promises when Shinui — which became Israel’s third
largest party after the Jan. 28 elections — agreed to join Prime Minister Ariel
Sharon’s new Likud-led government.

But the initial signs for a radical shift in
secular-religious relations were not auspicious: Shinui, which has 15 Knesset
seats, backed off much of its agenda when it compromised with the National
Religious Party (NRP) on the guidelines of the prospective government.
Moreover, political analysts are questioning just how much a government based
on Likud, Shinui, the NRP and the hawkish National Union bloc — but without the
Labor Party — will be able to move toward peace with the Palestinians.

The National Union, which is staunchly opposed to the
Palestinian state Sharon says he supports under certain conditions, tentatively
agreed Tuesday to join the government. The inclusion of the seven-member bloc
would give Sharon a 68-seat coalition and a bit of breathing room in the
120-member Knesset. Sharon was expected to present his government to the Knesset
on Thursday.

The form of that government took some shape Wednesday, when
Sharon offered the Foreign Ministry in the new Israeli government to Finance
Minister Silvan Shalom, ousting Benjamin Netanyahu from his current position.
Earlier Wednesday, Sharon had offered the Finance Ministry to Netanyahu, who
turned it down. But following consultations with close advisers, and a proposal
from Sharon that sweetened the deal, Netanyahu was still considering the
finance portfolio late Wednesday.

According to Israel Radio, in addition to the Cabinet
appointment, Netanyahu would be a member of the Security Cabinet. He also wants
to serve as acting prime minister in Sharon’s absence.

Before Shinui and the NRP signed initial coalition
agreements with the Likud on Monday, they worked out a bilateral deal on
secular-religious affairs that was mediated by Ehud Olmert, the outgoing mayor
of Jerusalem.

First they agreed to annul the “Tal Law,” which allows for
blanket exemptions from military service for yeshiva students and enables
fervently Orthodox men to join the Israeli work force without having to serve
first in the army. On the face of it, canceling the Tal Law seems like a major
step forward in the campaign for equality between secular and fervently
Orthodox Israelis. But the Shinui-NRP agreement gives no indication of what
will replace the Tal Law, stipulating only that a committee will propose new
legislation within a year.

It is therefore not at all clear that Shinui made any gains
at all on one of its main election promises: equal army or national service for
all. Nor did Shinui achieve dramatic breakthroughs on two other key election
promises: civil marriage and public transport on the Sabbath. The Shinui-NRP
deal does provide a civil marriage option for an estimated 250,000 people
barred from marrying by the Chief Rabbinate — for example, when one of the
partners is not halachically Jewish or when a descendant of a priestly caste
seeks to marry a divorcee.

But the key principle — offering a civil marriage option for
all Israelis — is not part of the deal. Nor is there any advance on public
transport on the Sabbath: Where such services exist, they will continue; where
they don’t, nothing will be done to introduce them.

Perhaps most importantly, the Shinui-NRP deal leaves the
Orthodox monopoly on Jewish religious affairs in Israel intact. There is no
recognition of the Conservative or Reform streams nor any upgrading of their
secondary status in Israel. Indeed, except on civil marriage and Sabbath
transport, Shinui agrees to back the status quo on religious affairs.

So binding is this commitment that even on civil marriage,
Shinui’s Knesset members are no longer free to back bills presented by
individual members without the backing of their parties; the most they can do
is abstain if such proposals come to a vote. Acknowledging that Shinui
legislators no longer could support a private member’s bill on civil marriage
that they had proposed jointly with a Labor legislator, Shinui’s Yehudit Naot
declared Monday, “There are things you just can’t do when you’re in

A few days before he signed the coalition deal, Lapid
insisted that “whether we end up in the government or not, I see in our
agreement with the NRP a new chapter in the relations between secular and
moderate religious people in Israel.”

However, few political analysts would agree.

“Where’s the change?” the left-leaning secular daily
Ha’aretz asked in a scathing editorial Monday, playing on the Hebrew meaning of
Shinui’s name.

The Shinui-NRP deal “raises concern that in their eagerness
to join the government, Shinui’s leaders have given up some of the most
significant of their principles: freedom of religion and freedom from
religion,” Ha’aretz argued.

The paper also pointed out that Shinui is not pushing for
the enactment of more basic laws enshrining individual and social rights or the
completion of a full-fledged constitution.

“If Shinui turns into another ruling party with no agenda,”
the paper warned, “its fate will be the same as the centrist parties that
preceded it” — all of which quickly disintegrated.

Lapid blames Labor for staying outside the coalition,
missing the chance to establish an all-secular government that would have been
able to make far more radical changes to the status quo.

Labor’s secretary-general, Ophir Pines-Paz, retorts that
Shinui torpedoed any chance for a secular government by rushing to cut a deal
with the NRP — the patron of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza
Strip — that made Labor’s participation in the government nearly impossible.

The presence of the NRP and National Union in the coalition
raises a second question: Will the new government, with its right-wing bias, be
able to move toward peace with the Palestinians?

NRP leaders insist they will not accept Palestinian
statehood in any shape or form, even though that is the declared aim of the
“road map” toward peace being prepared by the diplomatic “Quartet” of the
United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia. Sharon has publicly
accepted the gist of the road map, though Israel is suggesting certain changes
that will make the Palestinians’ responsibilities more explicit.

To appease the NRP, Sharon promised that government
guidelines would include not a commitment to a Palestinian state but a
reference to a speech Sharon delivered last December, when he outlined his
vision of phased, performance-based progress to Palestinian statehood.

“Only once a specific phase has been implemented,” Sharon
said then, “will progress to the next phase be possible.”

But what happens if there is genuine progress? Would the NRP
stay in the coalition or pull out, forcing Sharon to form a new government,
possibly with Labor?

The same uncertainty surrounds the durability of Sharon’s
pact with National Union, which is considered far more hawkish than the NRP.
National Union leader Avigdor Lieberman had refused to accept any mention of a
Palestinian state in the government guidelines. But he agreed with Likud
negotiators Tuesday that the issue of Palestinian statehood would be brought
before the Cabinet “if and when it becomes relevant.”

In his coalition talks with Labor, Sharon said he was convinced
that after an anticipated U.S.-led war against Iraq the international community
would turn its attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When that
happened, he told Labor leaders, he would be ready to make far-reaching
compromises. That statement kept Labor interested, but the talks broke down
when Sharon refused to commit himself in writing.

The big question pundits are asking is whether the phased
style Sharon favors in peacemaking applies to his coalition building as well.
First, he strikes deals with Shinui, NRP and National Union, dealing mainly
with economic and social issues; then, pundits say, when Sharon wants to move
on the Palestinian track, Labor will again be invited to join the government on
the basis of an agreed peace program.

Then again, this narrow coalition, with all its limitations,
could be all Sharon really wants. Even with Labor consigned to the opposition,
Sharon knows it would support any peace efforts he chooses to make — just the
way Labor supported former Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s peacemaking with
Egypt from the opposition.

JTA’s Naomi Segal contributed to this report. Â

Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report.

The Shinui Stance

Tommy Lapid, who has made a second career hammering the
ultra-Orthodox, says he didn’t go into Israeli politics in order to become a
government minister. But the outspoken, 71-year-old veteran journalist is
suddenly warming to the prospect.

With elections less than one week away, his militantly
secularist Shinui looks set to be the third largest party in the Knesset, more
than doubling the six seats it won at the first time of asking in 1999. With
the economy shrinking and army service expanding, Shinui (Hebrew for change)
has become a conduit for the pent-up anger of the Ashkenazi middle class,
sickened by sleaze and resenting the religious parties’ exploitation of their
political leverage.

And secular Israelis are starting to savor the possibility —
no more than that yet — of a ruling coalition without religious parties.

Interviewed in his Knesset office, the squat, pugnacious
Lapid stressed that he would join no other. He would not join a rightist
government and he would not join a leftist government.

“I will only strive for a national government which includes
Likud and Labor, and I will be in the middle between the two,” he said. “I will
not sit with the Charedi parties. I have my program, which could not be
included in the program of a government that includes Charedim.”

What is Lapid’s program?

“I want to abolish the law which exempts Charedim from
military service,” he said. “I want to introduce civil marriage. I want to
introduce public transport on the Sabbath. I want to repeal the law that pays a
bigger social security allowance to the fifth child than the other four put
together. That was promoted by the religious because they are the ones who have
five and more children. Every child from the first to the last should get the

“Then I want to close the Ministry of Religious Affairs,” he
added. “There is no need for that ministry, which gets 1.5 billion shekels
[about $300 million] a year and nobody knows where the money goes.”

Orthodox leaders have accused Lapid of sowing hatred, even
of being an anti-Semite. Where does he stand on the Jewish religion?

“I am one of the most active fighters for the full right of
Reform and Conservative rabbis in this country. The Orthodox have expropriated
Judaism in Israel, which is totally unacceptable to me. One of my aims is to
save Judaism from the hands of the Orthodox.

“I want young people to understand that Judaism is a great
humanistic tradition, which we should respect as a fundamental of our existence
here. I don’t want them to despise it because it became a means of imposing
your will on the majority of the country and exploiting it for material
purposes in the most blatant way.

“I have no quarrel with the Orthodox community, as long as
they serve in the army, work and pay taxes,” he said. “My quarrel is with the
ultra-Orthodox, who don’t serve in the army, with the 80 percent of them who
don’t work, don’t pay taxes and live off the secular middle-class taxpayer.”

Lapid was born into a prosperous Jewish family in the
Serbian city of Novi Sad. His father, a lawyer and newspaper editor, was killed
in the Holocaust, along with 11 other family members. He and his mother
survived after fleeing to Budapest, where Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg
sheltered them.

“We were a very Jewish family, but we were very unreligious.
Religion for us, like most assimilated families in Central Europe, meant having
a seder night. We went on the High Holidays to the synagogue.”

And now in Tel Aviv?

“We don’t light Friday night candles. We don’t do anything
except we keep seder and we light candles on Chanukah. I don’t fast on Yom
Kippur, but like practically all Israelis, I don’t travel on Yom Kippur. My
claim is that Yom Kippur is a proof that if religion hadn’t been imposed on
Israelis, they would be prepared to be much more observant than they are. The
fact that people don’t travel on Yom Kippur is not written in the law. It’s
something people do naturally.”

Shinui has been criticized for being an ethnic Ashkenazi
party and a one-issue party. Lapid pleads guilty to the first, but disputes the

“It does worry me that most of our voters and all but one of
our Knesset candidates are Ashkenazim. I’m very hopeful that in the future
we’ll have more Sephardi Jews in our ranks. I’d like a more balanced list.”

Now that Shinui is moving into the big time, it has to take
a stand on the war and peace issues that are at the heart of the national
agenda. Lapid, an instinctive rightist, has shifted to the left. But on his own

“Demography is more important than geography,” he argued.
“The danger that we will be overwhelmed by millions of Palestinians is much
greater than the danger of withdrawal from the majority of the territories.

Labor leader Amram Mitzna is committed to pulling back
unilaterally if he can’t reach an agreement with the Palestinians within a
year. Would Lapid do likewise? The answer is an emphatic “no.”

“We should not withdraw from any territory as long as terror
lasts, because this will be understood by the Palestinians as a proof that
terror works.”  

The Party Line

Nearly 30 political parties are vying in Israel’s Jan. 28
general elections.

According to the latest polls, about 15 parties stand a
chance of getting at least 1.5 percent of the vote, the threshold for getting
at least one of the Knesset’s 120 seats.

Following is a guide to the leading parties in the race:

Likud: The odds-on favorite, with a projected 32 seats in
the next Knesset, according to weekend polls. In 1999, when party leader
Benjamin Netanyahu lost the premiership to Ehud Barak, Likud won 19 seats in
the Knesset, considered a major defeat at the time. Now, under the leadership
of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the party consistently has led in the polls,
despite recent allegations of corruption against party officials and members of
Sharon’s own family.

Traditionally, the party has opposed any territorial
concessions to the Palestinians and has also balked at supporting the eventual
creation of a Palestinian state. As prime minister, however, Sharon has agreed
to make “painful concessions,” but only after the Palestinians completely
renounce terrorism. Sharon backs the creation of a national unity government
with the Labor Party.

Labor: Labor has the largest number of seats — 25 — in the
current Knesset. But, according to the latest polls, the party will get only 19
seats in the next Knesset — a devastating blow for the party that led Israel
for the first 30 years of the country’s existence.

With much of the Israeli electorate turning rightward, party
leader Amram Mitzna’s stances have appeared too dovish to rally greater
support, according to the polls. Mitzna has called for building a fence to
separate Israel from the West Bank, a project already begun by the Sharon
government, but which has not moved as swiftly as some would like. Mitzna also
calls for abandoning Jewish settlements, those in the Gaza Strip first. He also
has expressed willingness to negotiate with whomever the Palestinians choose as
a leader, including Yasser Arafat. Last week Mitzna declared that he would not
join a national unity government with Likud, but he faces strong opposition on
this issue from other members of his party.

Shas: With 17 seats in the current Knesset, this fervently
Orthodox-Sephardi party might soon lose its place as parliament’s third largest
party. Polls show Shas losing votes to Likud, and according to the latest
polls, it will win only 10 Knesset seats this time around. Along with seeking
support for Orthodox causes, the party seeks generous state funding for poorer
Israelis. A member of past coalitions led by Labor and Likud, Shas adopted a
hawkish stance toward the Palestinians after the intifada began in September

Shinui: This dovish and secular party is the Cinderella
story of the current election campaign. Under the leadership of former
journalist Yosef “Tommy” Lapid, the party is expected to leap from six to 15
Knesset seats, making it the third strongest political force in the next
Knesset. Lapid’s main agenda is anti-clerical. He calls for the creation of a
secular national government, with no religious parties in power. He is
considered liberal on economic issues, and center-right on the Palestinian

Meretz: When Yossi Beilin, the architect of the Oslo accords
and one of Israel’s leading doves, recently left Labor to join Meretz, this
leftist party hoped the move would boost its chances in the elections. However,
recent polls show it will lose three of its 10 Knesset seats. Under the
leadership of Yossi Sarid, the party calls for Jerusalem to become the shared
capital of both Israel and an eventual Palestinian state. It also calls for the
disbanding of most all settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.

National Union-Israel Our Home: Led by Avigdor Lieberman, a
former director of the prime minister’s office, this hawkish bloc stands to
grow from seven Knesset seats to nine, primarily because of its clear stance
against any concessions to the Palestinians.

The National Religious Party: This pro-settler party is
expected to retain its current five seats in the next Knesset. Considered the
main political force behind the settlement movement, the party opposes any
territorial concessions to the Palestinians.

United Torah Judaism: This fervently Orthodox bloc, which
includes the Agudat Yisrael and Degel HaTorah parties, is expected to retain
its current five Knesset seats. The party opposes drafting yeshiva students and
strongly objects to any changes in Shabbat laws. It has been flexible on the
Palestinian issue, but in recent years adopted a more hawkish stance.

Yisrael Ba’Aliyah: This immigrant-rights party, which held
four seats in the outgoing Knesset, will have to settle for three in the next,
according to polls. Apart from fighting for the rights of new immigrants, the
party adopts a hawkish stand on the Palestinian issue.

One Nation: This workers-rights party seeks to close the
economic gap between the haves and have-nots. It currently has two Knesset seats,
and polls say it will have three in the next parliament.

Green Leaf: This party advocates legalizing marijuana. Polls
say it will make its debut in the Knesset with one seat.

Herut: This nationalist party is expected to retain its sole
Knesset seat after the elections. Led by veteran legislator Michael Kleiner,
formerly of Likud, Herut also features the candidacy of Baruch Marzel, a former
member of the outlawed Kach movement. The party is courting the fervently
Orthodox community — a move that prompted members of the Ashkenazi community to
urge co-religionists not to vote for any “non-religious” party.

Hadash-Ta’al: The latest coalition in the Israeli Arab
sector, combining Hadash, under the leadership of Mohammad Barakeh, with Ahmed
Tibi’s Ta’al movement. The two parties have four Knesset members in the
outgoing Knesset; the polls anticipate three in the next.

United Arab List: A coalition of the Islamic Movement and
the Arab Democratic Party, strongly influenced by moderate Islamists. It is
expected to lose one of its current five Knesset seats.

Balad: A nationalist, pan-Arabist movement, chaired by Azmi
Beshara, who calls for turning Israel into a country of “all its citizens” —
that is, for it no longer to be a specifically Jewish State. Beshara is
currently the only member of the party serving in the Knesset, but Balad is
projected to win two additional seats.