As a supporter of Israel, I love the period prior to presidential elections. Candidates in both parties aggressively vie for the Jewish vote, for the backing of Jewish donors, and for the sympathy of Evangelicals who see Israel as a priority. For one year out of every four, Israel has a honeymoon from the usual give and take of diplomacy and political wrangling to which it is normally subjected by its most important ally.
Still, as much as I love these periods, I know it is a mistake to be misled by them. They provide a respite rather than a fundamental change in American policy. Yes, American presidents have different approaches to Israel but, in truth, not very different. American interests remain essentially the same, whether a Democrat or a Republican sits in the White House. (How many times have we heard promises about moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem? How many times have those promises been fulfilled?)
A danger for Israel is that her leaders will misread American election rhetoric. It is easy to be caught up in the euphoria of the moment and forget that the day after the vote, things will return to normal: America will again struggle to balance commitment to Israel with tough geopolitical realities. Support will be provided to Israel, but pressure will also be applied. Israel’s champions will assert themselves, but so will economic factors, oil lobbyists, and “realists” in the State Department.
Indeed, one of the more distressing aspects of the Republican primary season is the durability and resilience of the Ron Paul campaign, with its isolationist and borderline anti-Israel message. Paul will not be president, but his relative popularity is a grim reminder of the degree to which economic hardship has pushed issues of foreign affairs and foreign aid to the margins.
In short, the support-Israel-at-any-price talk in America is just that, talk. And therefore Israel’s leaders should not overreach. The wise course is to avoid self-delusion and to put forward a modest, cautious foreign policy that will position Israel to establish strong ties with the next American President, whoever that may be. Some things to be avoided: proclamations by Israel’s foreign minister that Britain, France, and Germany must behave or they will become “irrelevant”; declarations by aides to the prime minister that he will not write for the New York Times, the most important newspaper in America, because of its critical views on Israel; and, above all, provocative announcements on settlement activity that infuriate all of Israel’s friends and allies, including American officials who, for the moment, are obligated to remain silent.
Israel is a country of heroic people facing profound existentialist threats from every direction: Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah, and rejectionist Palestinian factions, not to mention the ominous uncertainties surrounding the Arab spring.
But make no mistake: it is also a small, vulnerable county that requires for its survival the economic, political, and military support of the Western democracies, and the United States above all. Even during the American election season—and in fact, especially during the election season— her leaders need to exercise humility and restraint.