Sarah Palin and the Jerusalem two-step

The Netanyahu government is getting ready to roll out the red carpet for former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, due to visit Israel next week

That makes Palin the latest in a procession of possible 2012 Republican presidential contenders to make the de rigor pilgrimage; she was preceded by former Ark. Gov. Mike Huckabee, who has visited enough to qualify for an aliyah stipend, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Mass. Governor Mitt Romney and Mississippi governor Haley Barbour.

No doubt Palin will be well received by a government that has effectively courted Republican politicians as a counterweight to what some see as a Democratic president who is less than friendly to the Jewish state and by the “not one inch” faction.

But if it’s Jewish votes Palin and the others think they’re going to get by doing the Jerusalem two-step, they probably have another thing coming.

Last week’s New Yorker offered the bluntest argument yet that Israel is simply not a big factor in the voting behavior of a majority of American Jews.

Writing in the “Talk of the Town” column, editor David Remnick argued that Netanyahu and a “coalition government that includes anti-democratic, even proto-fascistic ministers, such as Avigdor Lieberman” are simply not interested in ending the occupation of the West Bank despite dramatic shifts in the Middle East that threaten to leave Israel more isolated than ever.

“The occupation—illegal, inhumane, and inconsistent with Jewish values—has lasted forty-four years,” he writes. “Netanyahu thinks that he can keep on going, secure behind a wall…Smug and lacking in diplomatic creativity, Netanyahu has alienated and undermined the forces of progressivism in the West Bank and is, step by ugly step, deepening Israel’s isolation.”

Then he takes on the holy of holies in the pro-Israel world:

“For decades, AIPAC, the Anti-Defamation League, and other such right-leaning groups have played an outsized role in American politics, pressuring members of Congress and Presidents with their capacity to raise money and swing elections. But Democratic Presidents in particular should recognize that these groups are hardly representative and should be met head on. Obama won seventy-eight per cent of the Jewish vote; he is more likely to lose some of that vote if he reverses his position on, say, abortion than if he tries to organize international opinion on the Israeli-Arab conflict. However, some senior members of the Administration have internalized the political restraints that they believe they are under, and cannot think beyond them. Some, like Dennis Ross, who has served five Presidents, can think only in incremental terms.”

Is he right?

Politically, I think the evidence clearly supports Remnick’s assertion that Israel is not the driving factor behind Jewish presidential voting, although one can make a convincing case that the 39 percent who voted for Ronald Reagan in 1980 were motivated, at least in part, by fears President Jimmy Carter was being too hard on the Jewish state. (But I’ve also talked to respectable political scientists who say Israel was less of a factor for Jewish voters than the general belief Carter was a totally ineffectual leader and by economic concerns).

His conclusion is that the only thing that will end the current stalemate is a comprehensive American peace plan that would represent a new starting point for talks.

I’m not sure about that, although with things at a total standstill and the Arab world in ferment, the argument a U.S. plan would make things worse no longer sounds so compelling. And I’m less convinced by his optimistic assessment that the Palestinian leadership is ready to make the tough decisions peace will require.

Where I think he’s spot on: the dynamics of Jewish politics and the role Israel plays on election day. The major pro-Israel groups will bare their claws at even faint hints a comprehensive U.S. plan is in the works; Jewish voters are unlikely to react negatively if such a plan is seen as reasonably balanced and sufficiently focused on Israeli security.

So back to Sarah Palin: her trip may thrill Israeli right wingers and the Netanyahu government and provide some added comfort that prominent Republicans have their back.

That’s unlikely to do her much good with Jewish voters if she somehow wins the GOP nomination next year; barring dramatic changes in the Obama administration, Jewish voters will do what they always do: vote on a wide range of issues, primarily domestic, and with a tilt toward the progressive side of the spectrum.

And if it’s pro-Israel money she’s after, she’ll be up against some stiff competition from other contenders with longstanding relationships with the pro-Israel political world, starting with Huckabee and Romney.

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.