With a bitter US mid-term election just five months away, Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman decided this week to visit a place where his party's main attraction - US President George W. Bush - is very popular: Israel.
While Bush may be facing disapproval ratings of historic proportions at home, it's safe to say that were popularity polls conducted in Israel, Bush would do marvelously well.
Israelis are fond of Bush. Just ask Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, whose public comments in Washington last week were punctuated with high praise for the US president, his Mideast policies and his war on terror.
It is also safe to assume that this praise was repeated in a meeting Olmert held Wednesday with Mehlman, who was in the country this week on a five-day fact-finding visit put together by the Republican Jewish Coalition.
Israel's fondness for Bush puts Israeli Jews at odds with most of their coreligionists in America. Only an estimated 25 percent of American Jews voted for the president in 2004, despite various comments by then prime minister Ariel Sharon that Bush was, essentially, the best US president Israel ever had.
Which raises a difficult question for Republican Jewish strategists: What exactly does a Republican need to do if the "best US president Israel ever had" only receives one-quarter of the Jewish vote?
The first thing that needs to be done, said Mehlman, sounding very much like the text-book political strategist, is to build up the grass roots - "neighbor talking to neighbor, people doing forums at shuls, rabbis and others reaching out and getting people involved. It's not going to happen overnight."
Indeed, Mehlman describes a generational process. "All four of my grandparents were New Deal Democrats," he said, admitting that even they ultimately became Republicans less out of ideology, and more out of pride in their grandson. (Mehlman has a grandmother who lives in Jerusalem, having made aliya with her husband - who has since passed away - in the mid '70s.) "My dad became a Republican in the late '60s , my mom in the mid '90s. My brother is Republican, and that is fairly typical," he said. "You have a population that for lots of reasons, mostly ethnic, was overwhelmingly Democrat."
The shift, Mehlman said, began in the 1980s when Jews took note of the differences between Jimmy Carter, whose UN ambassador, Andrew Young, condemned Israel and who Mehlman said was beset himself by "moral equivalence" regarding Israel... and Ronald Reagan.
"Reagan proudly stood up for Israel during the Cold War," Mehlman said. "He talked about the importance of people like Natan Sharansky. That was the first movement of a lot of Jews to the Republican Party."
The second wave of Jewish Republican support - a "second aliya" of sorts - was when the Republicans took control of Congress in 1994, a victory engineered by Newt Gingrich.
"You are not going to find a more pro-Israel guy in the world than Newt Gingrich," Mehlman said of the former Republican Speaker of the House. "His ability to understand this issue and talk about it helped attract more support. And now you have George Bush, each time you are going to gain more support - but it is not going to happen overnight."
Mehlman said that both the Republican and Democratic parties "generally" have leaders who are pro-Israel.
"But I would argue that the Republican party is more pro-Israel, because we don't have the hard Left, which sees everything from the perspective of moral equivalence, which doesn't see right and wrong, but only sees victims."
The Republican Party, he said, is not stained by this "moral equivalency."
"Everyone says there is too much violence in the Holy Land - no question about it, and there is too much hatred in the Holy Land. But let's look at why that happened," Mehlman said. "There is not moral equivalence between a people who want to live and let live - the Israelis - and Palestinian terrorists who don't recognize the right of Israel to exist, and won't recognize the right of Israel to exist. The notion that our goal is that everyone should just get along and work it out because multilateralism and bilateralism is the end of everything, well, we respectively say that our goal is a two-state solution, but a two-state solution premised on a cessation of terrorism and on Israeli security."
MEHLMAN DREW a straight line from Reagan to Bush, overlooking other Republican luminaries not exactly known for strong pro-Israel positions, such as Bush's father, George H. W. Bush, and former presidential candidates like Bob Dole and Patrick Buchanan.
"I think that the moral clarity that Reagan had during the Cold War toward the Soviet Union, which was the greatest force for anti-Semitism in the world, and the moral clarity this president has in the war on terror and Islamo-fascism, the greatest source of anti-Semitism in the world, are both examples of a Republican Party that today proudly stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Israel in the war on terror."
Despite the under-whelming Jewish electoral support for Bush, Mehlman insisted that there has been an appreciation in the Jewish community of "the moral clarity" with which Bush sees the war on terrorism, and he framed Bush's strong support for Israel as very much a part of this campaign.
Which raises a hypothetical question: How strong would Bush's support for Israel have been had al-Qaida not brought down the World Trade Center?
"I've know the president well for a long time," said Mehlman, who was a national field director for the Bush/Cheney campaign in 2000 and who served as deputy assistant to the president and director of White House political affairs from 2001-2005.
"There are a lot of things people should understand about him. One is that he is someone who more than anything else despises bigotry and unfairness, and loves freedom. And if you look at the struggle Israel has faced since the beginning, that is a struggle that people who have those values can identify with."
Mehlman said that Bush made it clear when he first ran for the White House in 2000 that Israel and America were "inextricably linked because of our democratic and free values."
But obviously, he said, "the war on terror" has had a huge impact on cementing this conviction.
"What the war on terrorism has done for a lot of people was to show the challenges Israel faces every day," he said. "It made it real for people. Before it was only something you read and heard about. But suddenly when you are worried about going to work, when you have alerts you have to think about, when suddenly you're going through security checks, all of a sudden the struggle of a fellow democratic nations is something that you think about a lot."
That was then. Now, however, Americans are spending a lot of time thinking about Iraq and the US soldiers being killed there every day. And these thoughts are weakening both Bush and the Republican Party.
"I think Iraq is the biggest challenge we face, and I think the challenge of Iraq hangs over everything else," Mehlman said. "Nevertheless, Iraq is the absolutely right thing to do. This president is committed to doing it, and he is doing it because it is right."
Regardless, isn't Iraq going to enable the Democrats to make impressive gains in November, perhaps even recapturing the Senate and House?
The problem with Iraq, Mehlman said, was that many Americans were using an outdated notion of how to judge success and victory in that particular war.
"The way people judge the success of a current war is by what happened in the previous one. Take Korea, for instance," he said. "In Korea, the previous war had been World War II, and the result of that was unconditional surrender. So when you have an armistice in the middle of the Korean peninsula, people say, 'This isn't success.' But it turned out it was success, because it was a different kind of war.
"The same thing is true today," Mehlman argued. "Iraq is a different kind of war. How are the American people to judge the success of a war that is fundamentally an insurgency - what are the measures of success? Are they battlefield successes, troop movements?"
Or, he asked rhetorically, are the measures of success "the fact that more than 3,000 schools have opened in Iraq, more than 245,000 Iraqi troops and police have been trained, more than 100 newspapers have opened? Those are all examples of success, they are all measures of success."
Just as Americans came to see the Korean war as a "huge success and an incredibly important benchmark in defending America in the Cold War," so, too - he said - will the country's judgment change on Iraq. Maybe not this year or the next, but "over the long haul."
Mehlman's problem, however, is that the mid-term elections are in November, not over the long haul, and now this issue looms large.
In order to win the elections, Mehlman said the Republican Party will have to explain that the world is going through fundamental changes, that the US is adapting to these changes, but that change is hard.
"We have the same types of challenges today that America faced in the 1940s under president Truman," Mehlman said, namely that "the systems that everyone knew and grew up with were no longer relevant to the world we faced."
Bush's challenge, he said, has been "the massive systemic transformation of government" to deal with the new world.
"The hard part is that change is really hard," he said. "So in an era when you have a new kind of war requiring a new kind of national security, and when you have a new economic challenge requiring a new kind of tax system, and when you have challenges at home requiring a new kind of educational system - when you first put those systems in place - it is going to be a challenging time and a disorienting time, and that is part of what we are dealing with."
With Jewish voters, there is an additional challenge the Republicans face, and that is concern over the party's close and cozy relationship with evangelical Christians.
Asked how he addressees these concerns, Mehlman said, "The irrational fear of evangelical Christians that some Jewish Americans have makes absolutely no sense."
It is necessary to explain reality, he said, and that reality "is that most evangelical Christians are the biggest and strongest advocates you can possible have, and are also big and strong advocates of the ability of Jewish Americans to worship as they see fit."
Regarding the fears that the Christian Right want to erode the church-state separation in the US, Mehlman was equally adamant: "I don't know where in the Talmud it says that Church and state separation is required - it actually says the opposite.
"There are Jewish Americans who are secularists who are culturally Jewish. There is no question that they don't like it [this relationship]. But I think that most Jewish Americans would look to the Torah as their guidepost, as opposed to the bylaws of the ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union]. And if that is true, then I think evangelical Christians are friends and allies whom we look forward to working with where we agree on important issues."
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