The 2012 contest to show who loves Israel the most

Daniel Levy writes:

[I]t is in the realm of background noise, more than votes or dollars, that Israel really features as a campaign issue. John Heilemann, in an excellent New York Magazine piece, puts it like this: “the outsize attention they command and the ear-splitting volume of the collective megaphone they (Jews) wield.” Having to deal with relentless calls, op-eds, congressional resolutions and meeting requests (a monumental waste of administration and campaign time) is probably what seals the deal for kicking the Israel issue into the long grass by kissing the ring (or maybe the tuchus, in this case).

While the way in which Israel plays out as an issue with American Jews will not move the dial on next year’s elections, it will have other effects – not least on US policy and interests vis à vis Israel, the region and beyond. On the Republican side, Israel will be the center piece of a narrative that seeks to portray the president’s foreign policy as being too forgiving towards adversaries (with Iran topping the list) and too harsh with allies (see Israel). This is clearly not lined up to be a foreign policy election, and a Bin Laden-slaying incumbent is less easily portrayed as being soft on terror. But to divide the world beyond America’s shores between Judeo-Christian forces of light and Muslim forces of darkness nicely dovetails with a growing (and ugly) theme in domestic politics – sharia law care-mongering. It also still acts as a dog-whistle for the “Obama is a secret Muslim” crew.

Of greater significance for America’s future is how the Israel issue, especially if spun as electorally useful, can help bind neoconservatism to Tea Party-oriented Republicanism. A small-government, no-tax and debt-obsessed Tea Party agenda is an unnatural match for the war-mongering and global domination fantasies of neoconservatives. These trends have clashed already – for instance, with regard to America’s continued role in Afghanistan or its involvement in Libya. If Israel is to be kept far away from this equation and the neoconservatives are to maintain their iron grip on Republican foreign policy, then it is terribly convenient to spread the idea that Israel not only plays well in the bible belt, but that it can also help win the borscht belt. The almost total disappearance of realist or internationalist Rockefeller Republicanism from the party’s foreign policy arena (think GHW Bush, Scowcroft, Baker, and later, Hagel, Powell, and Chaffee) has made Republican and Likud policies indistinguishable.

That is a problem not only for Democrats, but also for America. It used to be claimed that Israel was a cause above partisan politics. Any such notion is utter nonsense today. If one assumes that: (a) Democrat-leaning Jews do largely care about Israel but not from a fundamentalist or hawkish perspective; and (b) that leading Democratic politicians tend to be in the same boat (both reasonable hypotheses); then Democrats have two possible options in responding to this new political reality. They can either make the argument for a different kind of pro-Israel policy or be playing permanent catch-up with the Republican/Likud right. Leading Jewish public intellectuals have been making the case for the former approach, a new movement (J Street) generated momentum for that option, and in a seminal essay, Peter Beinart provided a strong theoretical underpinning for the idea that this made for both good policy and good politics, given Jewish generational attitude shifts. President Obama and some leading figures in his administration initially seemed to concur – that being serious and responsible towards Israeli and American interests meant pushing for a two-state solution immediately, and standing against obstacles to that outcome such as settlements.

But through a combination of insufficient attention to detail, insufficient courage when the going got tough and insufficient coherence inside the administration, the latter approach eventually won out. Administration policy has increasingly become “we’re as pro-Israel as the Republicans and they can define pro-Israel as whatever they like.”

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