In the foreign policy showdown on Monday night, the two countries that got the most mentions during the final presidential debate were Iran and Israel, with 47 and 34 respectively. Of course, Iran is currently a major – if not the major – global threat to US interests, and the effort to prevent it from acquiring a nuclear weapon will be a significant preoccupation of the next administration.
But Israel? Sure, it finds itself at the crossroads of many important international concerns, but is it a more pressing issue right now for Americans, who are largely unified in support of the Jewish state, than China (32 references), Afghanistan (21) and Syria (28)?
Or could the ostentatious use of the word Israel have something to do with the fact that the debate took place in Boca Raton, the heart of Jewish southern Florida. Though Jews overwhelmingly vote Democratic a small shift, particularly since they vote disproportionate to their percentage of the population, could be important in what could be a razor-thin election.
President Obama was the first brought up Israel, less than 15 minutes into the 90-minute debate – and he did so on a not-exactly-relevant point. The question was ostensibly about what happened in Libya, though both candidates used it as a springboard into a broader discussion of the Middle East. Amidst the larger discussion of terrorism, Iraq and Russia, Obama interjected to say that “one thing I’ve learned as commander-in-chief [is that] “you’ve got to be clear both to our allies and our enemies about where you stand and what you mean.”
One of the examples he gave was that the US has to “make sure that [countries in the region] are standing by our interests in Israel’s security – because it is a true friend and our greatest ally in the region.”
Just a few weeks ago, Obama was pilloried by some in the Jewish community for calling Israel only “one of” America’s best allies in the Middle East. So Obama took the opportunity to clear that up.
Obama also continued on the Israel theme at a campaign appearance in Florida the next day.
“Cooperation with Israel has never been stronger,” he declared.
His statement was greeted with applause, but it’s not yet clear he’s won over the skeptics in the Jewish community – though he certainly made a strong effort to start off the week.