With the political conventions now over, the fall campaign begins in earnest and, more than ever before, Israel is becoming a wedge issue between the parties. The behavior of the parties themselves has encouraged that: the Democrats, in their foolish removal from their platform of 2008 references to Jerusalem as Israel’s capital; and the Republicans, in their mistaken refrain that “Obama is throwing Israel under a bus.”
It is vital to the security of Israel that American Jews of all political parties denounce any attempts to make Israel a partisan issue. I know it is tempting, especially for Republicans looking to slice off traditional Jewish support for Democrats, but “divide and conquer” isn’t a wise strategy for them, if their goal is to broaden their support. It feeds into a war-drum hysteria that only reinforces belief among many independents, Jews and non-Jews, that the GOP’s foreign policy is once again under the exclusive management of the same neo-cons who brought us the Iraq war (an adventure that, by the way, only strengthened Iran and thereby weakened Israel).
I will not make the case here for this administration’s being more supportive of Israel than perhaps any other previously. But a good case can be made, regarding both military cooperation and diplomatic assistance.
Arguments can also be made that Israel’s security is better served when the US is trusted and respected by all parties in Israel’s conflicts. Granted, the “honest broker” idea works better when there is actual dialogue going on, but despite the lack of a serious partner at the moment, Israel needs, for its own sake, to pursue relentlessly the nearly defunct two-state solution, and to do that, Israel needs America. Remember, Israel has achieved actual peace treaties with neighbors only under the presidencies of those who were trusted by all parties. Jimmy Carter was not Israel’s best friend, but peace with Egypt would not have happened without him. President Bush #41 had numerous public conflicts with Israeli leaders, but the Madrid Conference helped ease Israel’s regional isolation. And Bill Clinton, the guy who perfected the role of “honest broker,” helped facilitate peace with Jordan. Mitt Romney’s comments, both at the convention and earlier in Jerusalem (the ill-advised “culture makes all the difference” line), make it sound as if he wants nothing to do with helping to bridge the gaps between Israel and the Palestinians. Is that really in Israel’s best interest?
The Jerusalem platform flap was a grievous error that should have been avoided. It’s a hot button for Jews at a time when Palestinians have denied our historical connection even to the Temple Mount. Obama should have been on top of that. But he corrected it and it is wrong to read into it more than that it was a mistake. (It turns out that the Republicans, too, changed their plank on Jerusalem, removing the key word “undivided.”
It was embarrassing to hear so many in the arena resist the amendment to put Jerusalem back in the platform, but it is also not surprising that the Democratic Party features a multiplicity of voices on this and other issues. What concerns me is that as Israel becomes more of a wedge issue, the unintended consequence will be to diminish support for Israel among Democratic constituencies who have long been supportive but who bristle at the constant pressure from the right.
Or perhaps that is an intended consequence. No doubt the GOP would like to see Israel emerge as an issue that divides Democrats, as well as one that divides Jews. But is that what Israel wants? Is that what Jews want? Is that what AIPAC wants?
Perhaps AIPAC’s greatest accomplishment has been to make Israel’s security a consensus issue, one of the few in American politics, so I’ve got to believe that their leadership is not happy about the Democratic hedging and the Republican wedging. If that is the case, I’d love to see AIPAC speak out strongly against the usage of terminology like “throwing Israel under the bus,” just as it correctly objected to the Dems’ removal of Jerusalem from the platform. Maybe that is happening behind the scenes — but those objections need to be made more public.
At the AIPAC conference last March, Liz Cheney led off the very first plenary roundable with this outrageous accusation: “There is no president who has done more to delegitimize and destabilize the State of Israel in recent history than President Obama.” This enraged Jewish Democrats in attendance and others who were hoping for a bipartisan tone, especially since presidents Peres and Obama were set to address the conference minutes later.
That was bad, but Liz Cheney is merely a pundit — and one who will undoubtedly never be invited to the AIPAC stage again. Mitt Romney is the nominee.
It is now clear that the Romney campaign will try to turn the president’s alleged abandonment of Israel into its number one foreign policy issue. As the Iran crisis escalates and the situations in Syria and Egypt continue to deteriorate, quiet partnership is what is needed. Israeli and US leaders need to work out unified strategies and agreed-to red lines regarding the Iranian nuclear program (please, Barack and Barak, it’s time to agree on those red lines). AIPAC needs to be the adult in the room and, for the sake of Israel’s security, ask both campaigns — and their respective super PACs — to call off the dogs. If the candidates want to demonize each other in order to please major donors and whip constituents into a frenzy, do it in another sandbox. Stay away from the one marked “Israel.” Otherwise, AIPAC’s own reputation as an honest broker in national politics could itself be tarnished in the crossfire. And for Israel, the results could be much worse.