President Obama and Mitt Romney competed during their last debate to trumpet their support for Israel. What could Bob Schieffer say?
Most Americans no doubt spend little time thinking about Israel. Not that they have anything against it, but its fate is not high on their priority lists.
Yet Israel figured prominently into the Oct. 22 foreign policy debate between President Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
Obama broached it first, saying, “If Israel is attacked, America will stand with Israel.”
Romney did him one better: “If Israel is attacked, we have their back, not just diplomatically, not just culturally, but militarily.”
How do you top that?
As I watched C-Span the next morning, a caller questioned why we must focus on a country 5,600 miles eastward when we neglect our own nation’s ills. Prior to the debate, a group of church leaders asked Congress to reassess military aid on grounds that Israel commits human rights abuses. On Oct. 23, 70 rockets fired from Gaza injured some foreign workers and damaged homes in southern Israel.
So Israel has emerged as somewhat of a campaign issue. Much of it stems from casino mogul Sheldon Adelson’s vast donations to Romney, who pledged to keep the issue alive. Obama mentioned the word “Israel” 16 times; Romney, 13 times; and moderator Bob Schieffer, three times, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
A fraction of American Jews despise Obama because they believe he is an instrument of the Arabs, while a greater number of Jews have questioned some of his words and actions. When Israel confronts a crisis, many Americans fear oil prices will skyrocket and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will drag us into World War 111.
To set the record straight, 75 percent of Jews vote Democratic or for Republicans perceived as moderates. Obama’s Jewish support might dip somewhat on Nov. 6, but not dramatically. American Jews, while strongly pro-Israel, are as concerned as other citizens about jobs, health care and misguided wars. Many wealthy Jews vote for Democrats, which means that higher taxes do not worry them.
Some Jews will probably switch their votes to Romney because of Obama’s inconsistent approach to Israel. Jews who are hardcore conservatives or at least hawkish on Israel probably account for 20 percent of Jews here, as an educated guess.
When Vice President Biden visited Israel two years ago, he charged that Israel put “trust” at risk when the interior minister announced the construction of new residences in East Jerusalem.
My view is that Biden overreacted. The community in question is an established ultra-Orthodox neighborhood. Also, Biden would been justified to respond this way if the construction was planned for the West Bank, but even more moderate Jews question why Palestinians should share Jerusalem.
U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley of Nevada criticized Obama for suggesting that Israel and the Palestinians return to the 1967 borders with agreed-upon swaps. According to The Forward, she said, “I thought he made the statement at the absolute wrong time, because all the Arabs heard was going back to 1967 borders, not one of them heard the swaps.”
Jewish members of Congress, almost all Democrats, met with the president several months ago to convey Jewish concerns about Obama’s shaky relations with Israel. Jonathan Tobin, a rightwing columnist who previously edited The Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia, noted recently that Obama has demonstrated much stronger support for Israel during the latter part of his term. He sounded disappointed.
During the final debate, Obama recounted his efforts to help Israel and Romney accused him of throwing Israel “under the bus.” Besides appealing to Jewish voters, they both likely sought to hold onto Jewish donors and Romney reminded evangelical Christians of his support for Israel.
There is plenty of room to criticize the Israeli government, but Arab transgressions are far worse. This statement by itself is almost simplistic without further explanation, but that would fill up several more columns.
Support for Israel is slightly softer among Democrats, but well-intentioned Republicans worsened conditions in the last decade. A segment of Democrats, including members of Congress, equate Israel’s existence with colonization. Republican members of Congress sound very resolute and articulate when they assess Middle East issues.
Yet President Bush’s invasion of Iraq eliminated a counterweight to Iran when we conquered Saddam Hussein’s army. It left a void filled by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s threats to destroy Israel with a nuclear device.
Conversely, sanctions have severely damaged Iran’s economy, and the ayatollahs have reportedly agreed to talks with the United States, while Ahmadinejad must leave office next June. They could end up choosing between their designs on Israel and saving their economy.
So, a Republican president supplied Iran with the bus, and a Democratic president helped slow it down. Who has ended up to be better for Israel?
Bruce S. Ticker of Philadelphia is author of the e-book “George Costanza Goes to Washington” which describes fault lines in the political system. It is available at TheWriteDeal. Ticker can be reached at [email protected]