Republican candidates vying to unseat US President Barack Obama in the November
elections have a fighting chance given the still sluggish economy, but they have
also viewed the Democratic incumbent as vulnerable on foreign policy issues,
especially on Israel and Iran. Believing that American Jewish votes and
campaign donations are in play, conservatives have increasingly lambasted Obama
for abandoning US allies and appeasing its enemies.
In many regards, they
are right. The pillar of Obama’s foreign policy – fostering a new era of
relations with the Muslim world – is in shambles, as polls indicate Obama is
less popular in Arab and Islamic countries than his predecessor George W.
Critics say he may have caught up to Osama bin Laden and pulled our
troops out of Iraq, but Obama tossed a loyal ally – Hosni Mubarak – to the
Egyptian masses, while donning kid’s gloves with the brutal Assad dynasty in
Syria and the defiant Iranian regime.
Hoping to pick up Jewish votes that
traditionally have gone to Democrats, the Republicans have zeroed in during
recent primary debates on Obama’s bullying of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin
Netanyahu for a settlement freeze and other concessions to the Palestinians, as
well as his lack of support for regime change in Tehran as a way of defusing the
growing Iranian nuclear threat.
In recent weeks, Obama has begun to push
back, insisting that US-Israeli relations on strategic cooperation and military
assistance have never been stronger, and that his reliance on diplomacy to stop
Iran has even shifted attitudes in Moscow and Beijing.
It is true that,
under Obama, international sanctions against Iran are tightening and that the
Pentagon has deployed its advanced X-Band radar in Israel and delivered
bunker-buster bombs and other new military hardware to the IDF. But much of this
was already in the hopper under Bush. And many Jews are indeed considering the
Republican alternatives, given the way the Obama administration has openly
chided Netanyahu instead of handling disputes with Israel quietly.
casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, for instance, has funneled a reported $10
million into a super-PAC that supports former US House speaker Newt Gingrich.
And in one extreme case, a Jewish publisher in Atlanta even suggested in his
weekly paper that one option for dealing with Iran and thereby preserving Israel
was to carry out a hit on Obama.
Feeling the heat, Democratic defenders
of Obama have resorted to arguing that the Republicans are making a mistake by
trying to turn Israel into a partisan issue in this campaign, when it always has
been a matter of solid bipartisan consensus in Washington. But those on the
Right see it as an attempt to stifle debate on one of Obama’s weak points – his
many foreign policy blunders.
So just how do the Republican hopefuls
stack up against Obama on Israel, Iran and other key foreign policy issues
important not only to American Jewish voters but also to Evangelical Christians
who support the Jewish state? The Republican presidential primaries are nearing
their midway point, and four candidates are still standing – Gingrich, former senator Rick Santorum,
Ron Paul and the early frontrunner, former Massachusetts governor
Mitt Romney. During the intense primary debates so far, three of the four
contenders have made it clear they are strong supporters of Israel. The fourth,
Paul, has taken an isolationist, hands-off approach to world affairs, which he
argues would also benefit Israel.
The battle over who can portray
themselves to voters as the most pro- Israel took on a humorous air in a debate
in Iowa in December, when Gingrich and Romney competed over who had known
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu the longest and
Nonetheless, the jockeying over Zionist credentials shows that in
the current presidential race, it is hip to be pro-Israel.‘We’re with
The hopefuls for the Republican presidential nomination have each laid
claim to being the best candidate to beat Obama in the fall, and their focus on
Israel is a reflection of that contest. Romney, for instance, has accused
Obama more than once of “disrespecting” Netanyahu and “throwing Israel under the
bus” by endorsing the pre-1967 lines as the starting point for negotiations over
a future Palestinian state.
“I think [Obama] has time and time again
shown distance from Israel, and that has created, in my view, a greater sense of
aggression on the part of the Palestinians. I will stand with our friend,
Israel,” Romney said in a televised debate on CNN in early
Romney’s words have a ring of truth to them. On both his demand
for an Israeli settlement freeze and then his endorsement of the pre-’67 lines,
the Palestinians took Obama’s positions and dug in their heels, setting each as
preconditions for any direct talks with the Netanyahu government. In addition,
both White House decisions were reportedly taken without any real consultations
For his part, Netanyahu did take serious political risks
in imposing a 10- month settlement moratorium, but the Palestinians frittered
the time away. Netanyahu also eventually agreed to open talks with the
pre-’67 lines as one source for guidance on future borders, but he has also
insisted on Israel retaining the major settlement blocs and maintaining an IDF
presence in the Jordan Valley to defend Israel’s eastern border.
also came out against the pre-’67 lines as soon as Obama endorsed the idea last
May. In an editorial for National Review
, Santorum wrote, “Obama has just put
Israel’s very existence in more peril,” adding that his decision came just after
the Palestinian Authority agreed to a reconciliation deal with Hamas.
all but the blind, such a call at this time is nothing less than the rewarding
of terrorism,” wrote Santorum. This move “prejudged” negotiations and put Israel
“further on the defensive,” he added. Santorum has even gone on record as
considering the West Bank to be Israeli land.
While Romney and Santorum
have been outspoken on Israel for months, Gingrich has begun to come on strong
of late. In that same CNN debate in early January, he promised that as president
he would order the relocation of the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem
“the first day… to send the signal we’re with Israel.”
Gingrich stirred controversy by arguing that the Palestinians are an “invented
people” who until the 1970s viewed themselves as Syrian and Jordanian Arabs.
Many pro-Israel commentators applauded Gingrich’s honest assessment, but the
Arab world bristled at his remarks, and his campaign opponents suggested he may
have gone too far.
In a debate on ABC, Cong. Paul – an avid proponent of
reducing American involvement overseas – acknowledged the historical accuracy of
Gingrich’s claim but argued it was going to get the US into trouble with its
Romney asserted that Gingrich had made the same mistake
as Obama. “The United States of America should not jump ahead of Bibi Netanyahu
and say something that makes it more difficult for him to do his job,” he
But Gingrich stood his ground, declaring that he was simply
speaking the truth, just as Ronald Reagan had called the Soviet Union an “evil
“Reagan believed [in] the power of truth… and reframed the
world.” Gingrich retorted. “I’m proud to be a Reaganite. I will tell the
truth, even if it’s at the risk of causing some confusion sometimes with the
Obama shot back at all the criticism in his State of the Union
address in late January, signaling his intent to defend his record on the Middle
East this autumn. Obama trumpeted his “ironclad commitment” to Israel’s
security, which he claimed had resulted in “the closest military cooperation
between our two countries in history.” He insisted the US is determined to
prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon and will take “no options off the
table” to achieve that goal. He added that with the death of Osama bin Laden,
al-Qaida was now “scrambling” to escape the reach of the US.
remains the one indispensable nation in world affairs – and as long as I’m
president, I intend to keep it that way,” Obama decreed.
viewed his remarks as an implicit recognition of Republican claims that he is
more interested in apologizing for America’s mistakes than advancing its
interests. They viewed his State of the Union address as more the opening salvo
in his 2012 presidential campaign and a clear indication he will not be running
away from his foreign policy record.
But one Republican Jewish activist
said the speech reflected Obama’s awareness that “he’s been taking a hammering”
on Israel and Iran.
With lots of Jewish votes at stake in the Florida
primary just a few days later, the Republican candidates continued to pounce on
Obama. At a gathering hosted by an Orthodox Jewish synagogue, Santorum alluded
to a recent speech Obama gave at the Pentagon in which he stated that the “tide
of war is receding,” referring to direct US engagement in Iran and
“The president… is wrong. The war is on, and its front lines
are advancing towards us and our allies, above all toward Israel,” Santorum
insisted. “They are outspoken in their desire to weaken us and drive us out of
their regions. Some of them – Iran, and the radical Islamists whose rise
to power has been facilitated by this president – speak eagerly of destroying
us, and our allies, especially Israel.”
Santorum had put his finger on
perhaps the most important foreign policy issue of this election: the determined
radical forces seeking to subvert the US and its allies. “We have no strategy to
deal with this gathering storm. Indeed, our leaders act as if things are
getting better every day,” he said.
Referring to a recent opinion article
suggesting Obama led from behind, Santorum assured: “I will lead from the front,
which is America’s mission.”Iran options
Going forward, the Iranian
nuclear threat will continue to be a key focal point of the Republican foreign
policy debates. The UN’s atomic watchdog agency has concluded that Tehran has
active military components to its nuclear program, and there are mounting
concerns in Washington that Israel may soon feel compelled to launch preemptive
military strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities. Iran is now moving elements
of its uranium enrichment program to the fortified underground facility at
Fordow, shortening the window for Israeli action.
called Iran “the central threat right now” and said that he would be willing, as
a last resort, to order a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Santorum
believes that such an attack would not automatically start a major war, but,
rather, would prevent Iran from escalating its global terror campaign under a
nuclear umbrella. Still, he believes the West can do a lot more to assist
the Iranian people in bringing about a regime change in Tehran.
has also called for the US to openly seek regime change as the best way to
prevent Iran from going nuclear. In a CNN debate in November, he called
for cutting off the supply of gasoline to the Islamic Republic and sabotaging
their oil refinery capabilities, steps that he felt “could break the Iranian
regime” within a year’s time.
Romney has been less committal on Iran,
saying in a CNN debate in November that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
should be indicted for inciting to genocide against Israel. Romney also called
for “crippling sanctions that stop their economy. I know it’s going to make
gasoline more expensive. There’s no price which is worth an Iranian nuclear
Not surprisingly, Paul has been the only one firmly opposed to
striking Iran. A proponent of the belief that enemies act against the US because
America is too interventionist around the world, Paul has said “the biggest
threat to our national security is our financial condition,” and more wars and
foreign aid are “just aggravating it.”
This prompted Israeli strategic
analyst Barry Rubin to quip: “Why is Ron Paul so much like Barack Obama on
foreign policy? Because both men tend to blame America first.”
all Israelis are watching the US elections closely, and many are flattered at
all the love and attention they are receiving from the candidates in this US
election cycle, but becoming the object of a tug-of-war amid a heated
presidential race may not be such a positive development, according to
“We’ve seen many presidents from both parties that, at the end of
the day, were all very good on Israel, with some variations,” Israel’s former
ambassador to Washington Sallai Meridor recently told The Christian Edition
“But the risk of losing bipartisan support in America and becoming a political
football is immense.
“The bipartisan support of the people in America is
a vital asset for Israel, its security and well-being. And I would make every
effort… not to be perceived as playing into American politics in an election
year,” he continued.
“It’s a very delicate year,” Meridor concluded. “It
is highly important for Israel that Democrats and Republicans will feel that the
love for Israel, the care for Israel, the relations with Israel are above and
beyond politics. But as serious as this issue might be, it is nothing compared
to the Iranian issue.” Joshua Spurlock is a veteran reporter on Israel and
currently serves as editor of The Mideast Update (www.themideastupdate.com).