“Who’s Best For Israel?” Not A Simple Question


If Mitt Romney is elected president next week, Bibi Netanyahu will finally exhale, with a sigh of relief. The Israeli prime minister can feel confident that he will not be pressured to make peace with the Palestinian Authority anytime soon.

But is that a good thing?

If re-elected, President Barack Obama may conclude that the absence of an Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic initiative will lead to either another intifada or a sense of inevitability about a one-state solution, with Israel forced to choose between a future democratic state with an Arab majority or a Jewish apartheid state. He may then decide to try to revive the stone-cold peace talks in an effort to convince Jerusalem and Ramallah that the status quo is just too dangerous.
But is that a good thing?

Being “pro-Israel” used to be a simple proposition for American Jews. It meant supporting the government in Jerusalem, whether it was left or right, Labor or Likud. But for many, life is more complicated these days. While some American Jews continue to insist that our role should be unquestioning loyalty to the policies carried out in Jerusalem, others maintain that one can be a caring critic of the government in power, just as we are in the United States, divided into liberals and conservatives but equally committed to the strength and security of the nation.

It’s difficult to predict how people will act once in power. Consider the Supreme Court appointees who turned out to be more liberal or conservative than the president who selected them had hoped. The same holds true, if not more so, for the Mideast. Ehud Olmert is still considered a dove, though he went to war twice — against Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza — during his tenure as prime minister. And Netanyahu is widely seen as a hawk, but he has not gone to war in the more than six and a half years he has served as prime minister, from 1996 to 1999, and since March 2009.

When George Shultz was appointed secretary of state by President Ronald Reagan in 1982, American Jewish groups were deeply concerned, in part because Shultz had been chief executive of Bechtel, the huge construction company that did much business with Saudi Arabia. They thought he was too cozy with the Arabs and would take the Palestinian side on Mideast peace talks.

But Shultz became a strong ally of Israel during his tenure of more than six years. Some say his views became sympathetic to Israel after Yasir Arafat, the PLO chief, lied to him one too many times.

I once interviewed Shultz, after he left the State Department and asked whether he had been misread early on by the Jewish community or had changed his views while in office. He just smiled and answered, “What do you think?”

A President Romney, once in office, may come to the opinion that Israel needs to be prodded on the peace track for its own good. Just as it is possible that a re-elected President Obama may decide to lay off, convinced that the Palestinians remain unprepared for compromise.

The complexity of the Mideast is all too evident today in Syria. American politicians can, and do, decry the slaughter that is taking place there daily, but have little to say about what they would do to stop the bloodshed.

President Bashar Assad has outdone his father as a ruthless dictator, responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of his people, in plain sight. It seems clear that he should be brought down. But what if the U.S. supports the factionalized rebels, with the result of either a tribal state, or one controlled by neighboring Iran, or by the Islamic militants — some say al Qaeda — fighting to bring down the president?

On the most pressing Mideast issue — confronting Iran — it seems that the differences between Obama and Romney are more about rhetoric and style than substance. In their third debate, dealing with foreign policy, both men said they would not permit Tehran to have a nuclear bomb, that they would back Israel if it came to military action, but that war was the last resort and they would pursue a diplomatic solution to convince the Iranians to back down from their nuclear goals.

Romney was more forceful in his remarks in support of Israel, as he has been throughout the campaign. And Israelis have been skeptical about Obama from the start, sensing — I believe correctly — that he does not have the affinity for Israel in his kishkes that Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush had for the Jewish state.

A new poll finds Israelis overwhelmingly in favor of Romney over Obama by a margin of almost three to one. The latest survey, conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University, finds Israeli Arabs favoring Obama by three to one.

What are we to make of the fact that American Jewish attitudes are closer to those of Israeli Arabs than Israeli Jews when it comes to the U.S. election? It’s yet another indication that American and Israeli Jews view the world, including Israeli interests, through increasingly different lenses.

A number of thoughtful Israeli observers fear that Obama does not have the resolve to take on Iran militarily.
Journalist Yossi Klein Halevi, in his Point-Counter-Point column this week (see page 30), worries whether Obama “has the determination to match his rhetoric,” given his inclination toward negotiation and his “missed opportunities” in dealing with Syria, Egypt and Iran after its national election.

But Jeffrey Goldberg, national correspondent for The Atlantic magazine who writes regularly on the Mideast, counters that Obama is deeply committed against nuclear arms and “deadly serious about stopping nuclear proliferation in the Mideast.”

Goldberg also asserts that if Romney wins and seems ready to confront Iran militarily in conjunction with his friend Netanyahu, a strong anti-war effort in the U.S. will mount and erode Democratic support for such an action, endangering continued bipartisan support for Israel.

Of course all of these scenarios are theoretical, based on a combination of past history, rhetoric, probabilities, possibilities and gut instincts.

What is clear, though, is that American Jewish attitudes toward Israel, and toward the presidential candidates, are linked in complex ways that touch on our levels of confidence in, fear for or distance from the Jewish state. At least we should be aware of our own motives as we head for the polls.