Obama and Israel: Why 'Leading From Behind' Won't Work

American Jews are unmoved by attacks on Obama over Israel. But an agenda-setting Republican-Likud alliance is dangerous
September 20, 2011 |
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Last week, Susan Rice, America's ambassador to the UN, met with Jewish pro-Israel groups to update them on the extensive range of initiatives this Democratic administration is undertaking to block Palestinian aspirations at the United Nations. Two senior US envoys were in the Middle East with the same purpose (leaving America's post Arab Awakening efforts to constructively reset relations with the region in further free-fall). At the same time, Democrats lost a special election in New York's ninth congressional district – setting off a frenzied wave of speculation regarding the Jewish vote being in play in 2012 and Obama's Israel policy becoming a campaign wedge issue. The New York Times ran with the story as did a host of less august publications, with the Drudge Report choosing as its headline "revenge of the Jews".

The case for the New York ninth (in which GOP candidate Bob Turner beat David Weprin for a seat held by the Democrats for 88 years) having been about Israel or an indicator of Jewish voting trends is actually rather flimsy. True, the district is heavily Jewish and Israel was a campaign theme, including a call on Jewish voters from former city mayor and venerated tribal leader Ed Koch to punish Obama for his approach on Israel. The New York 9th is also deeply unrepresentative of national Jewish demographics, with a preponderance of ultra-orthodox, orthodox and Russian Jews. "Don't mistake the outliers for the tribe" cautions David Paul-Kuhn in the Atlantic, while, in the Daily Beast, Eric Alterman offers all the non-Israel related issues impacting voters, Jewish and non Jewish alike: Weprin's stance on gay marriage, his weakness as a candidate (including not living in the district), the Democrats' plan to eliminate the district, and then that other thing – the economy and the president's sinking overall approval ratings.

Nevertheless, Republican Jewish circles who don't often have much to celebrate, weren't going to miss this opportunity for some hyperventilating, especially having spent the 2008 cycle breathlessly predicting a "Barack Hussein Obama bad for Israel" breakthrough, only to see him carry more of the Jewish vote (with 78%) than Senator John Kerry did four years earlier. The argument is now being recycled as follows: having seen the president in action over Israel, this time Jews will not be so easily hoodwinked.

So is there anything to the claim: can Israel be a wedge issue and Jewish voters become a key swing constituency? In terms of votes, Jews make up perhaps 2% of the electorate, and even when more heavily concentrated in purple states such as Pennsylvania and Florida, they still weigh in at only around 5%.

The vast majority of American Jews are non-orthodox and are a strongly liberal demographic, and the GOP ticket and campaign would have to be decidedly moderate to keep that in check – notably on social values and separation of church and state issues. Sarah Palin's inclusion on the ticket probably put the kibosh on any meaningful Jewish conversion to the GOP in 2008. That brand of Tea Party Republicanism is set to be even more prevalent in 2012 – a distinctly unappealing prospect for Jewish voters. Moreover, it is simply the case that Israel is not a priority consideration for American Jews when casting their ballot.

The 2010 Pennsylvania senate race was a telling example. Democratic candidate Joe Sestak was attacked for his record on Israel, including in TV campaign ads placed by the dramatically named Emergency Committee for Israel. Sestak lost and the "it's all about Israel" cry went out – except that all the evidence suggested the opposite, that this wasn't about Israel at all.

What we are left with is something that might, at most, influence less than 0.5% of the vote in less than a handful of "in play" states. Of course, for the political campaign mangers, that might be enough to stake a claim on America's foreign policy in the Middle East.

Another possible cause for concern is the legendary funding and fundraising prowess of the community. But here the link to Israel policy is, if anything, even more tenuous and difficult to prove. Most Jewish campaign contributions have nothing to do with Israel and do not pass through pro-Israel PACs. At most ,for some Wall Street types, concern for Israel might lend a more righteous appearance to a decision made for reasons much closer to home. Certainly, every campaign will have its well-placed, deep-pocketed, Aipac-aligned, and conservatively pro-Israel funders who exist in order to chew ears, issue threats (including in the media) and make calls to the inner-sanctum of influentials.

And this takes us to the heart of the matter, for it 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." This was always the preferred option for much of the Democratic establishment and congressional leadership – the path of least resistance. Paradoxically, President Obama was being more "pro-Israel" when he was pursuing the former strategy. In any case, throughout his term, to quote Heilemann again, Obama has never waivered in going "balls out for Israel … again and again … the White House has had Israel's back."

But Obama cannot win by being more Republican than the Republicans and more Likud than the Likudniks on Israel. Why? Two simple reasons. First, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will not let him. According to former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Netanyahu is "ungrateful". In more blunt terms, Netanyahu is clearing rooting for the Republicans in 2012 (as he has always done). And subtlety is not his strong suit. Second, a Likudist American policy on Israel-Palestine cannot be cordoned off or isolated in its own bubble. It ends up defining an entire regional approach and one that is laden with greater costs and risks than ever for US interests in this post Arab Awakening era. This week at the UN will not be pretty for the US, but expect things to get far uglier the more boxed in to Likudism America becomes.