Israel should not be an issue in the November election. No one argues that President Obama’s record on Israel is perfect. But our legitimate concerns about Israel are being manipulated for partisan gain by those who attack Obama for policies that are no different from previous administrations.
The United States has never officially recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. That’s why the US embassy is not in Jerusalem. The Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995 requires that the US embassy be moved to Jerusalem unless the President signs a waiver every six months preventing the move. Bill Clinton signed the waiver every six months. George W. Bush signed the waiver every six months. Barack Obama signed the waiver every six months. And unless the parties to the conflict reach an agreement on Jerusalem, the next president will continue to sign the waiver every six months. We’ve seen videos of State Department officials refusing to say that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital. But we’ve never seen videos of State Department officials from prior administrations saying that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital. It’s been this way for over 60 years, and it will continue this way no matter who wins in November.
The United States has always objected to settlements. Settlements are not the root cause of the conflict. There were no settlements when the Arabs attacked Israel in 1948, nor were there any settlements prior to the Six Day War. The root cause of the conflict is Arab refusal to accept and recognize the permanent reality of a Jewish state of Israel. But every American administration since the Six Day War has opposed settlements because the more settlements there are, the more difficult it becomes to draw reasonable borders for a Palestinian state. The Bush administration publicly objected to construction even in Jerusalem, and George W. Bush publicly expressed frustration with Israel’s Prime Minister. The Bush roadmap for peace explicitly forbids “natural growth” of settlements. It’s not a new issue.
Even President Obama’s statement that “we believe the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states” was simply a restatement of George W. Bush’s declaration that any peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians “will require mutually agreed adjustments to the armistice lines of 1949 to reflect current realities and to ensure that the Palestinian state is viable and contiguous.”
The policies of this administration toward Israel that some question are continuations of American policy that will persist no matter who is president. But this is what sets the Obama administration apart from previous administrations: President Obama has called for the removal of Syrian President Assad, ordered the successful assassination of Osama bin-Laden, done more than any other president to stop Iran’s illicit nuclear program, restored Israel’s qualitative military edge after years of erosion under the Bush administration, secretly sold Israel the bunker-busting bombs it requested but did not receive during the Bush administration, increased security assistance to Israel to record levels, boycotted Durban II and Durban III, took US-Israel military and intelligence cooperation to unprecedented levels, cast his only veto in the UN against a one-sided anti-Israel Security Council resolution, opposed the Goldstone Report, stood with Israel against the Gaza flotilla, and organized a successful diplomatic crusade against the unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state.
Contrary to Paul Ryan’s claim during the vice-presidential debate, President Obama did not oppose Iran sanctions—the issue was executive prerogative, and the provisions President Obama requested actually gave the President more flexibility to impose tougher sanctions.
Yet we’ve all seen the videos–some of which feature attractive young people who claim to have voted for Obama in 2008 and are now shocked, SHOCKED that his election did not usher in an era of world peace and universal love and that the US and Israel disagree on certain issues.
The reality is that US policy toward Israel has remained remarkably consistant over the past 60 years. There have been ups and downs throughout the history of US-Israel relations, but there have been many fewer downs during this administration than in previous administrations. We don’t know what Romney will do if elected. While there are legitimate questions about his foreign policy expertise, chances are that a Romney administration would resemble a Bush administration on Israel, for better or for worse.
Israel is an election issue because Republicans need it to be an election issue: It’s their only hope for winning Jewish votes. The problem for Republicans is that while they are generally supportive of Israel, the Democrats are too. There are real differences between the parties and the candidates, but Israel is not one of them. Where the parties do differ, the Democratic party is much better on the social and economic issues that most Jews care about.
The Republicans have a choice: Admit that both parties support Israel and concede the Jewish vote on social and economic issues, or use Israel as a partisan wedge issue by denying the Democratic party’s strong record of support for Israel (you can read my reaction to the Democrats who booed Jerusalem here). Unfortunately for America and Israel, the Republicans have chosen to ignore Michael Oren’s warning about turning Israel into a partisan issue. Fortunately for America and Israel, the vast majority of Jews are smart enough to see through these divisive Republican tactics and will vote to re-elect President Obama.