In his acceptance speech, the Republican nominee Mitt Romney charged that “President Obama has thrown allies like Israel under the bus.” Beyond its vulgarity – stirring fears of statecraft by cliché – the statement is inaccurate and mischievous. “Under the bus” implies that Barack Obama has abandoned Israel, when the reality is more complicated. It also suggests Israel has suffered a catastrophic flattening blow, which is false. The throwaway line is yet another partisan attempt to make Israel a wedge issue in American politics, when support for the deep, enduring friendship between the United States and Israel should remain a bipartisan bedrock, a common foundation for each party’s foreign policy.
Public discourse about Israel, from friends and foes, is too hysterical. Many of Israel’s supporters have been so traumatized by the disproportionate attacks against Israel, the demonization of Zionism, the anti-Semitism underlying some criticism of Israel, and the existential nature of threats from Iran and others, that they exaggerate other critics’ hostility and the Jewish State’s vulnerability.
Not every criticism of Israel threatens Israel’s existence. Not every critic of Israel’s policies is “anti-Israel.” Barack Obama buys the pro-Israel’s Left tough-love toward Israel approach to solving the Palestinian problem and he occasionally offends Israeli sensibilities, including foolishly inviting Jimmy Carter to address the Democratic National Convention. Obama unfairly scapegoated Israeli settlements while excusing or overlooking Palestinian obstructionism. He broadcasts disdain for Benjamin Netanyahu while going wobbly sometimes on Mahmoud Abbas. He snubbed the Jewish State by not visiting it, visiting Buchenwald as compensation. He has not disavowed the hostile comments of the Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staffs, Gen. Martin Dempsey, that he will not “be complicit” if Israel strikes Iran – and has unfairly fed the perception of Israelis as being too aggressive when he should be tougher on Iran.
Still, Obama is not “anti-Israel.” He stood strong for Israel when Egyptian mobs overran Israel’s Cairo embassy, defended Israel in the UN, and strengthened US-Israeli military cooperation in key areas too.
Calling someone who supports Israel’s right to exist yet criticizes its policies “anti-Israel,” foolishly emboldens the delegitimizers. It suggests more people are anti-Israel than actually are. Israel “love it or leave it” talk makes Israel seem more fragile and hostile to criticism than it is. It mirrors and reinforces the Is-crits’ tendency to escalate discussion about Israel’s policies from constructively debating government policies to pathologically questioning the country’s very existence.
Unfortunately, there are enough anti-Israel Iranians, Palestinians, and, I regret to say, Progressives, who question Jew’s basic rights to national self-determination. We should repudiate those Arafatian Ahmadinejads and their fellow travelers, not a president who takes some positions I reject but are within the mainstream spectrum of Israeli, Jewish and American opinion.
This panicky, histrionic, all-or-nothing, debate about whether Obama is “pro” or “anti” Israel overly sentimentalizes and politicizes the American-Israeli friendship. This tendency goes back to 1948, when Eddie Jacobson lobbied President Harry Truman, his old army buddy and business partner, to support the emerging Jewish State. But sentiment rarely dictates statesmanship. Truman supported the Jewish State for many sound political and geopolitical reasons too. These included the 1948 election race, common values, seeking to solve the “Jewish problem” after the Holocaust, a desire for democratic allies in the Middle East as the Cold War heated up, and -- as the historian and diplomat Michael Oren detailed in his authoritative Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East: 1776 to the Present – American presidents’ longstanding bipartisan commitment to Zionism.
Since 1948, that friendship has flourished, and transcends any individual, even America’s president. As the Republicans'' 2012 platform reads, “Our starting point must always be our special relationship with Israel, grounded in shared interests and shared values, and a clear, strong fundamental commitment to the security of Israel, our strongest ally in the region and its only established democracy.” Oops. That is the Democrats’ 2008 platform. The Republicans wrote: “The security of Israel is in the vital national security interest of the United States; our alliance is based not only on shared interests, but also shared values.”
This language overlap shows that the American-Israel friendship is not precariously perched on artificial Astroturf, imposed by some powerful lobby or buffeted by changing presidential whims. Rather, the American-Israel alliance is natural, deep-seeded, sprouting from the grassroots and mutually beneficial to both countries.
Polls, political statements and policies indicate that Israel remains extremely popular among most Republicans and Democrats. The Republicans have a Pat Buchanan anti-Israel isolationist wing while the Democrats have a Jesse Jackson anti-Israel radical left wing, proving that, like the globe itself, the political world is round; at the extremes the zanies meet.
Unfortunately, since the far Democratic Left deemed almost anything George W. Bush embraced as toxic, too many radical Democrats have branded Israel a right-wing, neoconservative project. Not enough pro-Israel Democrats have confronted their far left peers’ neo-conning of Israel. Someone with impeccable leftwing credentials should expose the underlying prejudices of the new anti-Zionist Left, just as the iconic conservative William F. Buckley confronted Pat Buchanan’s anti-Israel, anti-Semitism on the Right in 1991. Democrats should admit that too many anti-Israel voices have found a welcoming home in their party.
Nevertheless, American political parties are broad umbrella coalitions. No candidate can be responsible for everyone sitting in one particular tent. While pro-Israel Democrats should purge their extremists, pro-Israel Republicans should avoid overly politicizing the Israel file. Making Israel a wedge issue, caricaturing Obama as “anti-Israel,” is untrue and counter-productive.
Let’s debate the candidates’ proposed policies and strategies. Let’s avoid loyalty oaths, denunciations, and recriminations. And let’s insist that the 2012 winner stop Iran’s nuclearization, for America’s safety not just Israel’s.
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of “Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” his next book, “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism” will be published by Oxford University Press in the fall.