(photo credit: BAZ RATNER)
It is rare for leading US politicians to visit West Bank settlements, especially an ideological settlement like Shiloh. Rarer still for them to do so publicly. And almost unheard of to do so in the midst of their presidential campaign and hold a fund-raiser there to boot.
Yet, that is exactly what former Arkansas governor and current Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee did Tuesday, shortly after landing in Israel on a campaign stop, even as his Republican primary rivals were giving speeches and shaking hands at the Iowa State Fair.
It’s a crowded field, the Republican presidential race, and Huckabee probably won’t be that party’s candidate come next summer. Still, his unabashed, unashamed support for the settlements – a position he has held for years and which he underlined just by going to Shiloh on Tuesday – is not without significance.
There is little popular support for Israel’s settlement enterprise in the US, even among Israel’s high-profile political supporters there. Indeed, the settlements are widely seen as illegitimate, a position US President Barack Obama has pushed strongly over the last seven years, questioning even the legitimacy of Israel’s post-1967 neighborhoods in Jerusalem.
And then along comes Huckabee and loudly, even proudly, says, “Whoa!” Not only does Israel have a God-given right to Judea and Samaria, he has argued, but every time it has left the settlements, it has led to increased trouble and terror.
When George W. Bush was president, he minimized the overall importance of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and widened the lens to focus on the greater Middle East.
Obama, by contrast, came into office and – at least during his first two years – narrowed the focus to the Israeli- Palestinian conflict, saying a peace accord between the sides was the key to unleashing stability in the region.
And a key factor holding that up, he made clear, was the settlements.
What Huckabee, a strident critic of Obama’s Mideast policy – from Israel to Iran – is doing with his Shiloh visit is saying that Obama has it dead wrong: that the settlements are not illegitimate, as the president and this administration like to say, nor is it the reason for the Mideast’s problems.
But, some will argue, who cares what Huckabee has to say? He is going nowhere in the presidential race; recently said a 10-year-old rape victim should not be allowed to have an abortion; and accused Obama of leading Israelis “to the ovens” with the Iran deal. He only reflects and represents America’s “lunatic” Evangelical right-wing.
Yet, it does matter what Huckabee has to say because he has a big voice and is on a huge stage.
And, by the way, the Evangelicals in the US are a large, important, influential pro-Israel demographic that should not be arrogantly dismissed as backward primitives whose positions do not matter. There is more to America than The New York Times editorial board or the University of California at Berkeley. Kentucky matters, as does Arkansas, and Indiana and Arizona.
As result of Tuesday’s story in The Jerusalem Post about Huckabee’s Shiloh visit, the candidate will be asked both about his fund-raiser there and the settlements. His answers on the settlements will be different than those usually heard; he will paint a different picture of the settlements than the one generally painted in America’s public discourse.
And, since this is a campaign, his pro-settlement positions could push the needle on the issue among other Republican candidates, since many of them – like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio – are targeting the same Evangelical base Huckabee is after. Huckabee’s forceful position on this matter may compel them to speak about the settlements in ways not generally heard in US political discourse.
Today, most discussion on the settlement issue among US politicians starts from the premise that they are illegitimate and an obstacle to peace.
If some high-profile politicians inside the Republican Party begin to challenge that premise, and those arguments are heard by the American people, it is not a matter void of significance.
Does this mean US public opinion will dramatically change on the issue as a result? No. But it could mean the anti-settlement Orthodoxy promulgated by the Obama administration will be challenged, and that the other side of the issue will get a wider hearing by the American public.