With primaries in a succession of U.S. states looming and the presidential election just about 10 months away, conservatives in the United States have turned Israel into a wedge issue.
Israel has been thrust into the centre of the debate both by candidates vying for the Republican party nomination and their respective supporters. In a year when the U.S. economy is faltering, Israel has emerged as a key issue among Republican politicians scrambling to impress two completely different constituencies: Jews and evangelical Christians.
Jews constitute only two per cent of the overall population, but have been critical in swing states – Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida, among others – and have been useful as campaign donors. Evangelical Christians, who outnumber Jews by a huge margin, tend to vote as a bloc.
For decades now, the vast majority of Jews have voted for the Democrats in presidential elections. In 2008, almost eight out of 10 Jewish voters cast their ballots for Barack Obama, the Democratic standard bearer who defeated Republican John McCain. But these facts have not deterred the Republicans.
Buoyed by a recent byelection in New York City in which Republican candidate Bob Turner posted an upset victory over Democratic rival David Weprin for the vacant congressional seat of disgraced Democrat Anthony Weiner, Republicans figure that unconditional support for Israel may well pay hefty dividends come November.
Virtually all the current Republican candidates, from Mitt Romney to Newt Gingrich, have adopted hawkish pro-Israel positions and portray President Obama as insufficiently supportive of the Jewish state.
Romney, claiming that Obama wants “to undermine” Israel, “our longtime friend and ally,” says that he treats it with “suspicion and distrust.” Romney believes that Israel should not be pressured to make concessions to the Palestinians in the interests of reaching an agreement.
Gingrich, while supporting a two-state solution, claims that the Palestinians are an “invented people,” a comment that heartens Israeli rejectionists opposed to territorial compromise. Rick Perry says that Israel should be permitted to build settlements in the West Bank and that eastern Jerusalem should remain in Israel’s hands.
Clearly, Republicans are trying to define Obama as a fair-weather friend of Israel, focusing on a speech he delivered last May in which he espoused a two-state solution based on the pre-1967 borders and mutually agreed land swaps. Like many Israelis, Obama thinks that Israel’s status as a Jewish and democratic nation can best be assured via this route. Romney, however, claimed that Obama had “thrown Israel under the bus,” while Perry described the plan as “insulting and naive.”
And in a further bid to curry favour with targeted voters, Perry has lambasted Obama’s “policy of moral equivalence” in which Israel and the Palestinian Authority are equally blamed for the impasse in the peace process.
In an attempt to besmirch Obama, their ideological bedfellows have bought full-page ads in major American newspapers.
Last September, in a surreal assertion, the David Horowitz Freedom Center claimed that Obama is “the most anti-Israel president in American history,” a claim that John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, echoed.
The centre, in a litany of unsubstantiated accusations, said that Obama had publicly “humiliated” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, demanded that Israel “surrender its right to defend its border,” compelled Israel to make dangerous concessions to the Palestinians and treated Israel “as an enemy.”
Meanwhile, the Emergency Committee for Israel has suggested that Obama is not pro-Israel and has posed a rhetorical question: “Why does the Obama administration treat Israel like a punching bag?”
These fantastical claims have not surprised Obama or his supporters.
While campaigning in 2008, Obama aptly observed, “There is a strain within the pro-Israel community that says unless you adopt an unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel that you’re anti-Israel.” Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the chair of the Democratic National Committee, has correctly labelled attacks on Obama’s record as “deliberate distortions.”
More to the point, Republican claims are hotly disputed by Israel’s leadership.
President Shimon Peres has called Obama “a friend of the Jewish people and the State of Israel.” Defence Minister Ehud Barak has declared, “Obama is an ally and friend of Israel. The Obama administration gives backing to Israel’s security in a wide, all-encompassing and unprecedented manner.”
Praising Obama’s opposition to the Palestinian unilateral declaration of independence at the United Nations last autumn, Netanyahu gushed that he had earned a “badge of honour.” Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, an arch conservative as well, described Obama’s address as “the speech of an ally.”
Surveying the current Israel-U.S. relationship, Zalman Shoval, Israel’s former ambassador to the United States and a Likud stalwart, said, “I’ve never felt such strong support for Israel in Washington.”
Shoval’s assessment rings true.
Like his predecessors, Obama has had tactical, but not strategic, disagreements with Israel. These disputes have usually concerned the status of the territories captured by Israel in the Six Day War, the depth of the withdrawals Israel should undertake to achieve peace with its Arab neighbours and, now, the legality of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and the Golan Heights under international law.
To the Obama administration, the settlements are “illegitimate” and an obstacle to peace, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has stated. On the basis of this principle, Washington has condemned Israeli plans to expand settlements beyond the old Green Line. Nonetheless, the United States vetoed a UN resolution last summer condemning Israel’s settlement activity.
Although Obama promotes an accord based on the 1967 armistice lines, he says that they are a starting rather than an end point for negotiations, and that peace cannot be externally imposed.
The Obama administration’s pro-Israel record goes deeper. Apart from having opposed the unilateral Palestinian request for full UN membership, it cut off funding to UNESCO after its support of this position. Washington played a key role in mobilizing international opposition to last summer’s Gaza flotilla, strongly backed Israel’s right to defend itself after the publication of the Goldstone report and refused to attend a Durban anti-racism conference followup meeting. Washington, too, has been trying to block Iran’s path to a nuclear arsenal and continues to defend Israel’s legitimacy.
U.S. military assistance to Israel, which has reached the annual $3-billion level, is supplemented to the tune of $235 million so that Israel can deploy more Iron Dome anti-rocket batteries. And significantly, Israel is one of the few countries permitted to buy the F-35 stealth fighter jet.
Obama has repeatedly called U.S. bonds with Israel “unbreakable” and “unshakable,” and, unlike previous presidents whose conservative credentials were unquestioned, he has not suspended the flow of weapons to Israel.
Obama has admitted that some of his encounters with Netanyahu have been tense. But to extrapolate from this that he is not pro-Israel is unadulterated nonsense.