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On Tuesday, millions of voters in 21 states made their choice for president. Super Tuesday marked the end of the preliminary stage of "The Making of the President 2008" and will move us very close to the main event. From a roster of more than a dozen potential presidents, we are now down to just Senators Clinton and Obama on the Democratic side and Senator McCain and Governors Romney and Huckabee for the Republicans. This early deciding is relatively new. In 1960, Lyndon Johnson's campaign for president did not start until days before the July convention. Robert Kennedy launched his 1968 bid on St. Patrick's Day.
But here we are in February 2008 and, in both parties, the winnowing down to the two finalists is well underway. Thus far, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has barely been mentioned by any of the candidates. If past history is any guide, it won't be mentioned much and, when it is, only in front of Jewish audiences where effusive declarations of support for Israel will be offered.
We all know why. Candidates fear to speak with any candor about Israel because they suspect, and not without cause, that the only people paying attention to what they say will be zealots.
Candidates are not dumb. They have seen the polls, which show that the overwhelming majority of pro-Israel Jews support the two-state solution and the peace process. But they also know that, overwhelming as that majority may be, it is a soft majority. Pro-Israel voters who favor negotiations do not vote solely on the basis of a candidate's position on the Middle East. They vote, like most Americans, on a host of issues that affect all Americans. Zealots don't vote that way. They vote (and make political contributions) based on one issue. Like all single-issue blocs they have a disproportionate influence on the way a candidate addresses their sole concern.
The zealous single-issue voter does not require all that much to gain his support. All he wants is for a candidate to mouth hawkish pieties and never ever to indicate any sympathy for Palestinians.
THEN THERE is the truly ugly part of the political game played by the ideological zealots and bigots. The smearing of candidates as anti-Israel or anti-Semitic by invoking utterly meaningless past actions (Clinton's kissing Suha Arafat) or flat-out lies (devout Christian Obama is a secret Muslim). The Internet has revolutionized the delivering of information but, even more, the delivery of disinformation, lies, and smears.
The smear campaigns could do serious damage to long-standing strong relationships between America's various minority groups.
The idea that these attacks are emanating from the lunatic-fringe of the Jewish community is as ironic as it is troubling. Even more troubling is that supposedly intelligent people believe racist libels simply because they show up in their in-box.
MEANWHILE, of course, Israel's travails continue. The very policies pushed on public officials and candidates by supposedly pro-Israel advocacy groups have produced disaster for Israel. They ensured that US assistance to Abu Mazen's Palestinian Authority would be so stingy that Hamas would beat Fatah in the Palestinian elections. They supported only Israel's unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, but not a negotiated agreement with the Palestinians that would have gotten Israel out of Gaza without transforming it into a terror launching pad. They pressured the Bush administration not to insist on the immediate dismantling of the illegal outposts and checkpoints not needed for Israeli security even though such actions would have boosted Abbas and harmed Hamas. They encouraged neither prisoner exchanges nor cease-fires, nor a permanent settlements freeze, oblivious to how they were strengthening Hamas. In short, these status quo positions - which candidates are pressured to endorse - have done nothing for Israel, other than to perpetuate the misery typified by the words Gaza and Sderot.
So what is a candidate to say, particularly about the Arab-Israeli conflict?
I've written this before. A candidate should say: "If I am elected President, I will do everything in my power to bring about negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians with the goal of achieving peace and security for Israel and a secure state for the Palestinians. As a supporter of Israel, I believe that Israel's surest route to security is by reaching an agreement with the Palestinians. Furthermore, I believe that achieving an equitable Israeli-Palestinian agreement will advance America's interests throughout the Middle East and the Muslim world. Peace between Israel and the Arabs will only be achieved by means of US leadership and I intend to provide it."
Grandstand rhetoric about a candidate's undying love for Israel is meaningless if not coupled with the promise of leadership to help bring it peace.
Pro-Israel policies should produce results that are good for Israel. That is obvious. Equally obvious is that the policies promoted by the single-issue crowd have produced the opposite. Pro-Israel? I think not.
The writer is the director of Israel Policy Forum's Washington Policy Center.
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