Washington Watch: Israel in 2016 campaigns

Most Jewish voters want to know where the candidates stand on Israel, particularly peace and security, even if that is not anywhere near the top issue on their agenda.

By
February 10, 2016 21:49
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) campaigns in Cleveland

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) campaigns in Cleveland. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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Beyond the swagger and machismo about carpeting- bombing the s**t out of Islamic State and making what already is the strongest military in the world the strongest military in the world, there’s been little substantive discussion of foreign and defense policy in this campaign beyond staff-written position papers posted on the candidates’ web sites.

And to see those documents you often have to give your name and email address so you can begin receiving a deluge of press releases and appeals for contributions.

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Most Jewish voters want to know where the candidates stand on Israel, particularly peace and security, even if that is not – and polls repeatedly show it – anywhere near the top issue on their agenda.

The responses of GOP candidates when asked about Israel generally center on four elements: declarations of undying love, trashing President Barack Obama, silence on substance of policy and promises they can’t fulfill.

They conveniently overlook that even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu concedes that security and intelligence cooperation between the two allies has never been stronger or more productive than under Obama, despite the personal antagonism between the two leaders.

Both Democratic candidates embrace Obama’s contributions, although one, Hillary Clinton, says she can restore warmth and friendliness at the top, although she doesn’t explain how.

For most GOP candidates, foreign policy means talking tough, threatening wider military action, using more torture, filling the empty cells at Gitmo and doing the opposite of Obama.

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Clinton, a former secretary of state and senator, clearly has the most foreign policy expertise of candidates in both parties, and extensive Middle East experience, understanding of issues and relations with the major players.

But what you’re most likely to hear about if she’s the nominee is not her experience but the day in 1999 when she was photographed kissing Yasser Arafat’s wife after the latter had given a speech accusing Israel of using poison gas against Palestinians. Clinton claimed she never heard the statement in the translation, but one picture is worth a thousand denials.

Senator Bernie Sanders concedes Clinton’s expertise but says what matters most is “judgment.” And for that he points to his vote against the Iraq war and Clinton’s support.

His views on Israel are well to the Left but closer to the mainstream of the Jewish community than extremists like Sheldon Adelson, a major GOP funder, who oppose the two-state solution and support settlement expansion.

In a 1990 interview Sanders said the US should lean on Israel more to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians.

Some Jewish voters may be bothered that he says one of his advisers on Middle East issues is James Zogby, head of the Arab-American Institute.

Sanders is not just the only Jewish candidate but the only one to have spent time on an Israeli kibbutz, although he seems loathe to talk about the time he spent in the early 1960s at Sha’ar Ha’amakim, a leftist kibbutz. That and Sanders’ calling himself a socialist led to an outburst of red-baiting, including a New York Post headline calling him a “diehard communist” in a story that would make Joe McCarthy drool.

Sanders and Clinton have embraced the two-state approach to peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and have done so for many years, something the Republican candidates are loathe to do.

Their approach resembles the laissez-faire one taken four years ago by Mitt Romney. When the parties are ready, they can call us, but what they are really saying is “when the Israelis are ready.” Any call from the Palestinians will go directly to voice mail.

Jeb Bush quickly dumped Jim Baker as an adviser after hawkish Israel supporters were outraged when his father’s secretary of state expressed frustration with Netanyahu’s reluctance to make peace.

When Netanyahu, on the eve of his election last March, said there would be no Palestinian state on his watch, Ted Cruz declared the United States should “stand unshakably” with the Israeli leader, a position that contradicts longstanding US policy.

It’s no coincidence that the hawkish positions of Republican contenders track those of the Jewish multi-millionaires and billionaires whose backing they seek.

The deepest pockets belong to casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, who is expected to match his 2012 spending in the neighborhood of $100 million to elect a pro-Likud Republican president. Adelson hasn’t publicly anointed a candidate yet but judging from the endorsement in his newspaper, The Las Vegas Review-Journal, it will be Marco Rubio.

Adelson, who is also Netanyahu’s benefactor, is an outspoken foe of Palestinian statehood, as is Rubio’s other Jewish billionaire backer, Norman Braman, so don’t look for the Florida senator to endorse the twostate solution. He has even learned to say Judea and Samaria instead of West Bank.

You can ignore all the talk about moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. They’re just blowing smoke and hoping naïve voters will buy it. Both parties have been doing it for years and nothing happened, and won’t until there’s a peace agreement.

All the Republican candidates opposed the Iran nuclear deal, with Rubio even trying to tie it to Iranian recognition of Israel, although even with his failed amendment he would have voted against the pact. It was simply grandstanding for his donors.

Cruz called the Iran deal – which Israel’s top general praised as “a strategic turning point” for the Jewish state – “a fundamental betrayal” of Israel and vowed to shred the pact on his first day in office.

Both Democratic candidates supported the deal. Clinton said, “I would not support this agreement for one second if I thought it put Israel in greater danger,” and promised tough enforcement. Sanders wants to “move aggressively... to normalize relations with Iran.”

This much you can count on: support for Israel will continue whoever the next president is, and the close and generous security relationship will not change.

Any change is likely to come on the diplomatic front.

On peace making, the Republicans indicate, to the extent there’s any real discussion, they will continue the “call us when you’re ready, we won’t bother you” approach. They will take their cues from their big donors, who tend to be to the Right of Netanyahu.

A Democratic president would be more proactive.

Clinton has said she would continue working “to advance the goal of two states for two peoples,” although it’s doubtful either Democrat is likely to invest much diplomatic capital in what will continue to be futile mediation as long as Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas are in office.

And once again we’ll likely see this Israeli prime minister actively campaigning for a Republican candidate that an overwhelming majority of Jews will reject at the polls in November. Given the tenor of the GOP primary battles, that number may well be even more overwhelming than usual.

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