They spoke with the caution that the situation required, gritting their teeth as though their mouths were full of pebbles, trying to soothe all the fears and concerns. They searched and found signs in Obama: The promising appointment of the Israeli ex-patriots' son, whose father belonged to the Irgun, and maybe also Dennis Ross and Dan Kurtzer and Martin Indyk, who may, God willing, be included in the new administration.
But in the background, a dark cloud hovered above. Careful, danger. The black man, who had associated with Palestinian expats, who speaks of human rights, who favors diplomacy over war, who even wants to engage Iran in dialogue, who will allocate more funding for America's social needs than to weapons exports. He may not be the sort of "friend of Israel" that we have come to love in Washington, the kind of friend we have grown accustomed to.
What's the panic all about? The truth needs to be said: At the base of all of these fears is the angst that this president will push Israel to end the occupation and move toward peace.
Well, maybe Obama will not be a "friend of Israel." May the great change he is promising not omit his country's Mideast policy. May Obama herald not only a new America, but also a new Middle East.
When we say that someone is a "friend of Israel" we mean a friend of the occupation, a believer in Israel's self-armament, a fan of its language of strength and a supporter of all its regional delusions. When we say someone is a "friend of Israel" we mean someone who will give Israel a carte blanche for any violent adventure it desires, for rejecting peace and for building in the territories.
Israel's greatest friend in the White House, outgoing U.S. President George W. Bush, was someone like that. There is no other country where this man, who brought a string of disasters down upon his own nation and the world, would receive any degree of prestige and respect. Only in Israel.
Only in Israel does the prime minister place George Bush's portrait in his den, in his private home. Only in Israel does the prime minister travel to visit him in the White House.
That's because Bush was a friend of Israel. Israel's greatest friend. Bush let it embark on an unnecessary war in Lebanon. He did not prevent the construction of a single outpost. He may have encouraged Israel, in secret, to bomb Iran. He did not pressure Israel to move ahead with peace talks, he even held up negotiations with Syria, and he did not reproach Israel for its policy of targeted killings.
Bush also supported the siege on Gaza and participated in the boycott of Hamas, which was elected in a democratic election initiated by his own administration.
That's just how we like U.S. presidents. They give us a green light to do as we please. They fund, equip and arm us, and sit tight. Such is the classic friend of Israel, a friend who is an enemy, and enemy of peace and an enemy to Israel.
Let us now hope that Obama will not be like them. That he will reveal himself to be a true friend of Israel. That he will put his whole weight behind a deep American involvement in the Middle East, that he will try to solve the Iranian issue through negotiation - the only effective means. That he will help end the siege on Gaza and the boycott of Hamas, that he will push Israel and Syria to make peace, that he will spur Israel and the Palestinians to reach a settlement.
We should hope Obama will help Israel help itself, because that is how friendship is measured. That he will criticize its policy when he must, because that, too, is a test of true friendship.
Let him use his clout to end the occupation and dismantle the settlement project. Let him remember that human and civil rights also apply to the Palestinians, not only to black Americans. And apropos world peace, he needs to start with peace in the Middle East, home to the most dangerous of conflicts, which has been threatening the world for a century now, and is feeding international terrorism.
A true friend of Israel needs to remember that Israel may be "the only democracy in the Middle East," but not in its own backyard. That next to Sderot, which he visited, is Gaza. That "common values" must not include a cruel occupation. That friendship does not mean blind and automatic support.
Let him speak with Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas, as often as he can and with whomever is willing to talk. And let him do it before the next war, not after it. Let him remember that he has the power to do all that.
Changing the Middle East was in the power of each and every U.S. president, who could have pressured Israel and put an end to the occupation. Most of them kept their hands off as if it were a hot potato, all in the name of a wonderful friendship.
So bring us an American president who is not another dreadful "friend of Israel," an Obama who won't blindly follow the positions of the Jewish lobby and the Israeli government. You did promise change, did you not?