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(photo credit: AP)
The good news is that it's too early for the various US presidential campaigns to have begun the predictable, and by now ritualistic, arguments about who is "better" on Israel. That is probably because none of the major candidates has said or posted very much about Israel that is not routine fare, designed not to offend anyone.
Campaign staffers tell their bosses to tread very carefully (if at all) on this issue, recalling the trouble Howard Dean got into in 2004 when he suggested that America's Middle East policy should be "even-handed." Having never served in Congress, Dean did not know that the inside-the-beltway guardians of the Israel issue had decided that the phrase "even-handed" was code for anti-Israel and was therefore verboten. I doubt any candidate will make that mistake again.
But there will be other "mistakes." Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, who came in second in the Iowa Straw Poll, has already come up against the sheer craziness that surrounds Jewish issues in a presidential campaign. Huckabee, who is famous for having shed a hundred pounds, not long ago joked that for awhile he looked like he just came "out of six weeks at a concentration camp held by the Democratic Party of Arkansas in an undisclosed locationâ€¦."
Huckabee was immediately pounced upon, with one Jewish Democratic official issuing a statement demanding Huckabee apologize to the Jewish community. "It's insensitive, and we think making light of the Holocaust isn't something any elected official should be doing."
The Holocaust? To his credit, Huckabee - who is now as well-known for talking straight as losing weight - refused to apologize. "I never identified a particular kind of camp, and to make such a far-reaching statement is laughable and is the type of allegation that makes people cynical."
And cynical is precisely what people should be - or at least skeptical - as they hear candidates and their spokespeople call out other candidates for being anti-Israel when they deviate from the script each campaign is handed on Middle East issues.
THIS IS nothing new. It has been happening virtually every four years since the establishment of Israel. However, it was only after the Six Day War of 1967, that both parties began exploiting the Israel issue with anything like the vigor - not to mention the nastiness - we see today.
Since 1967 almost every candidate has been accused of being weak on Israel. Of course, each of the six Presidents elected since 1968 has maintained the basic policy first endorsed by president Lyndon B. Johnson following the 1967 war, i.e. to implement United Nations Resolution 242 (and later 338), calling for the exchange of lands occupied in the Six Day War for a secure and lasting peace.
Each president since LBJ has favored the land for peace formula, and so will the next president. But that won't deter campaigns from using the Israel issue for maximum advantage in 2008, because that is what politicians do.
It is a game called "gotcha." It is played by scouring an opponent's record or utterances to find the one phrase or comment that will cause a particular interest group to come down on him like a ton of bricks. "Gotcha" is at the heart of every negative campaign and it often works.
Is it any wonder that candidates seem to go to great lengths to avoid saying anything remotely substantive on the Middle East? They simply utter platitudes about supporting Israel, despising terrorism, and believing in peace - in the abstract. Knowing that any substantive statement could be used against them, candidates just play it safe. And segments of the pro-Israel community encourage them by criticizing constructive suggestions as anti-Israel, and by giving ovations and donations to candidates who tell them what they want to hear.
It's all a game, but a dangerous one. That is because although each president since 1968 has been committed to the peace process, few have dared to do anything about it (Carter, Bush I, and Clinton being the exceptions). Most felt locked in by the commitments they made during the campaign. They also knew that they would be pounced on by Members of Congress who would try to score political points and campaign contributions by defending Israel against any President who put Middle East peace near the top of his agenda.
SO WHAT should a candidate say? I've put forth my prescription before and I'll say it again. He or she 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."
One more thing. Reading the candidates' statements on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict issued so far, I see that they tend to focus only on what Palestinians need to do to end the conflict. As for Israel, it need not do anything. The candidates do not mention the illegal outposts, the settlements or the checkpoints. It is as if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one in which one side is all victim and the other all perpetrator. This, of course, bears no resemblance to reality, and the candidates know it.
What they don't know is that more and more pro-Israel voters and donors do not want to hear this ritualistic nonsense.
The writer is the director of Israel Policy Forum's Washington Policy Center.