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This weekend, American television talk-show host Chris Matthews was discussing the latest contretemps between President George W. Bush and Democratic presidential contender Sen. Barack Obama on his MSNBC current affairs program Hardball, when in apparent frustration he asked a guest, "Why is Israel now the center of the Republican interest in this campaign? What is Israel all about in this campaign? Why the focus on Israel... Why are we turning Israel into Hyde Park Speakers' Corner? Why is Israel becoming the new podium for all this political activity?"
Good questions - and even more puzzling from the Israeli perspective. Americans may rightfully be excited about their presidential race, especially as it narrows down to a contest between Democratic front-runner Obama and anointed Republican nominee Sen. John McCain, but not many here are getting particularly worked up about it.
Sen. Hillary Clinton, her candidacy now hanging on by a thread, was the candidate most familiar to Israelis, and the one who generated the greatest reaction from them. As for McCain and Obama, both are perceived as standing well within the long-established US political consensus of strong and faithful support for Israel, and neither are viewed at this stage with either much trepidation - or, for that matter, much enthusiasm - if only because we've got so many local pressing political issues occupying our interest right now.
When Bush declared last Thursday from the Knesset podium, "Some seem to believe we should negotiate with terrorists and radicals," and compared them to World World II appeasers of Nazi aggression, these words sparked no particular reaction here. This kind of discourse is common at the highest Israeli political levels, and Bush could well have been referring to the many here who believe, and unapologetically advocate, that course.
(What's more, in 2001, then-prime minister Ariel Sharon even flung a similar charge at the Bush administration, declaring, "Don't repeat the terrible mistake of 1938... Do not try to placate the Arabs at our expense... Israel will not be Czechoslovakia.")
Although the White House denies that Bush was specifically aiming his rhetoric at Obama, the Democratic contender thought otherwise, interpreting the remarks as an attack on his declared policy of attempting to diplomatically engage Iran as a means of halting their nuclear development program, and also falsely implying that he would be equally willing to talk directly with Hamas, despite repeatedly stating this was not the case.
"A president, as a general rule, does not use a foreign country to make political attacks. We are supposed to be united when we leave our borders," responded a seemingly indignant Obama, while also lashing out at McCain, who had noted earlier that a Hamas spokesman expressed a preference for the Democratic candidate.
In the last few days, the US media has given so much play to this dust-up, and American media pundits have themselves chimed in so voluminously and vociferously on the subject, that one might think the question of whether or not to talk with Hamas was the No. 1 issue on the minds of US voters nowadays.
Well, it's not - nor is any other aspect related directly to US-Israeli relations. According to a nationwide poll of likely US voters released last week by The Israel Poll (TIP), a Washington-based lobby group that works to improve Israel's image (and for whom I used to work), only 7 percent listed "The Middle East conflict between Israel and the Palestinians/The threat of Iran" as one of the two top issues that concerned them the most - way behind such top-tier subjects as "The economy and jobs" (51%), "The situation in Iraq" (33%) and "Affordable health care" (23%).
Presumably, that small percentage so passionately concerned about Israel includes more than its fair share of Jews, and McCain is indeed expected to have a good shot at drawing more of these voters away from Obama than previous Republican presidential candidates have done against Democratic candidates. But even here, we're talking about something in the area of 5-10% of the Jewish vote, a relatively minuscule percentage of the general electorate, and most of it anyway concentrated in "Blue states" (New York, California, Illinois) expected to go Democratic in any case.
So what's the big deal here about Hamas? As Matthews asks, why the focus on Israel?
Well, some of the answer is also in that TIP poll. Support for Israel among Americans is at an all-time high, with 76% agreeing that Israel is a "vital ally" of the US, 71% saying the US should support Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians and 60% willing to identify themselves as supporters of Israel in that conflict.
In contrast, while backing for a two-state solution remains high, specific support for the Palestinians has dropped to single digits, in part due to the rise of Hamas; more than 60% blame both the humanitarian problems in Gaza, and the deaths of civilians from Israeli fire, directly on the radical Islamic group.
Thus, in trying to paint Obama as "soft" on Hamas, rightly or wrongly, the Republicans are at least treading on safe consensual policy ground in criticizing the Democratic contender - certainly in stark contrast to anything connected with the Iraq conflict. And while strong support for Israel may hardly be first on the minds of US voters, it's a policy stance they solidly back - both Republicans and Democrats - so it is not surprising the GOP would jump on any perceived weakness in Obama's position in this regard.
That's why the Democratic candidate performed damage control last week by dropping from the marginal advisory role he had with the campaign former US diplomat Robert Malley, who has advocated talking with Hamas and continued to maintain contact with the group. It's also why Obama reacted so strongly to Bush's Knesset comments and McCain's earlier reference to Hamas support for the candidate.
Ironically all this comes just as the Israeli government is seriously considering whether to move forward on a possible Egypt-brokered temporary cease-fire with Hamas, which if it should come to pass in the next few weeks, will likely push this particular matter to the back burner in the months leading up to the US election.
This doesn't mean, though, that anyone should expect that issues dealing with Israel, its conflict with the Palestinians and others in the region, will play any less a contentious role in the US presidential race than it has thus far.
How to deal with the Iranian nuclear challenge will - and should - play a major role in campaign foreign policy. But from an American perspective, that should be due no less (and probably more) to the threat it poses to most of the world's increasingly pricey oil reserves, than to the danger it constitutes for the Jewish state.
Another point worth keeping in mind, is that the political divide in Israel isn't over whether to talk to Hamas, but whether it is really also worth talking to Fatah. That's an issue on which right now the decision-makers in Jerusalem and Washington are in agreement. If, though, between now and November, those in Jerusalem who think otherwise manage to return to power, you can be sure you'll be hearing even more - lots more - about Israel in this campaign, from those looking to take the reins of power in Washington.
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