Center Field: Want the best president for Israel?

Vote for the candidate who will jumpstart the economy, combat Islamo-terrorism, and restore America's world standing.

'Super-Duper" Tuesday is looming February 5. Americans will vote in 22 states, including New York, New Jersey and California, all with major Jewish populations. As Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama fight fiercely for the Democratic nomination, many pro-Israel voters are asking, "who is best for Israel"? Truth is, despite the murmurings about the "Jewish vote" and the "Israel lobby," few American Jews today are such narrow one-issue voters. Amid American Jews' lamentable but growing disinterest in Israel, most American Jews are more multi-dimensional, and frankly, more passionate about other stances such as being pro-choice and anti-Bush. With American support for Israel so widespread and "apple pie," most mainstream candidates make enough pro-Israel noises to satisfy the casually pro-Israel American Jew. There is also a deeper debate about what kind of candidate is "best for Israel"? Many Israeli and American doves want a president "pro-Israel" enough to pressure Israel. Many hawks consider Bill Clinton a president who genuinely loved Israel, but whose policies intensified Palestinian terrorism against Israel. Still, the tea leaves gathering around Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama on the Israel issue suggest different readings. Clinton's pro-Israel critics point to her activities in the 1970s leading the New World Foundation, which funded New Left darlings, including the Palestinians. They also note Clinton's infamous 1999 embrace of Yasser Arafat's wife Suha, immediately after she had accused Israel of gassing Palestinian women and children. Any fair reading of Hillary Clinton's record, however, balances these moments with more compelling evidence of deep ties to Israel. As the First Lady of Arkansas in the 1980s, she proudly imported an Israeli program serving underprivileged youth, HIPPY, the Home Instruction Program for Preschool Youngsters. More recently, representing New York, Senator Clinton not only supported Israel enthusiastically, she was a leading Democratic voice opposing terrorism and the Iranian threat. In fact, Hillary Clinton may feel the terrorist threat, and the need to support Israel, more viscerally than any presidential candidate except New York's former mayor Rudy Giuliani. In addition to visiting Ground Zero when it was still smoldering, as New York's Senator, Hillary Clinton experienced some panicky moments on September 11 when she could not locate her daughter Chelsea, who was in lower Manhattan that day. Mrs. Clinton's initial accounts placed her daughter closer to the disaster than Chelsea's account did - psychobiographers can speculate whether that is maternal melodrama or Clintonesque spin. Less well-known is Hillary Clinton's second heartbreaking window into Israelis' losses from terrorism. In February, 2002, while visiting Israel, Senator Clinton was photographed meeting Yochai Porat, a charming 26-year-old from Kfar Saba who coordinated the Jewish Agency's Foreign Volunteers Program. Barely a week later, on March 3, a Palestinian sniper attacked an army roadblock on the Ramallah-Nablus road. Serving in the reserves as a medic, Porat scrambled to help the wounded and ended up one of the 10 people murdered that morning. Three years later, when visiting Israel to mark Yitzhak Rabin's 10th yahrzeit, Senator Clinton met Porat's family. To her credit - and contrary to the Clinton reputation for milking every honest sentiment - she and her campaign have not publicized this firsthand lesson she learned about the horrors of Palestinian terror. IN THIS REALM, as in so many others, Barack Obama's stance is vaguer. Still, even many who reject the libelous email falsely accusing him of mysterious Muslim ties are worried. Many of his foreign policy advisers, such as Zbigniew Brzezinski, have led the blame-Israel-first crowd for decades. The United Church of Christ to which Obama does belong has taken harsh anti-Israel positions that Obama has not repudiated boldly. More broadly, in appealing to the Democratic Left, Obama is allying with many who have been the most indulgent of Iran, critical of Israel, and skittish about fighting terrorism. And yet, in March 2007, Obama did what he does best - he gave a beautiful speech. At the AIPAC foreign policy forum, he championed Israel as America's special democratic ally while denouncing Hamas, Hizbullah and Iran. Obama's description comparing the American-style suburban idyll he witnessed on a visit to Kiryat Shmona in 2006 and the destruction he then saw from one Katyusha rocket - months before the Second Lebanon War - is typically vivid, empathetic, and moving. If Obama wants to solidify his foreign policy credentials, and prove that soaring rhetoric can have real impact, he should pick a fight with one of the many anti-Israel leftists who masquerade their anti-Semitism behind anti-Zionism. Stealing a page from the Clinton playbook, remembering how effectively Bill Clinton dressed down an African-American racist, if Obama pulled such a "Sister Souljah" moment, he would prove he can stand up to any ugly elements festering among his own allies. Such a blow would do more for his campaign than the many pro-Israel Obamaniacs currently wandering around assuring everyone they can that Obama's "OK on Israel" and will fight terrorism aggressively. ULTIMATELY, when it comes to the presidency, and especially regarding Middle East policy, biography is rarely destiny. George W. Bush was presumed to be uninterested in foreign policy. Also, the smart money suggested he would be as hard on Israel as the rest of the George H.W. Bush-James Baker crowd. Amid all this confusion and speculation, a surprisingly easy answer emerges. The best president for Israel is the best president for America. No - anti-Semitic conspiracy types take note - Israel's and America's needs do not always converge. But Israel most needs a strong effective leader for America, Israel's truest friend, who will jumpstart America's economy, heal its social divisions, combat Islamo-terrorism, ensure victory in Iraq, and restore America's world standing. Ardent pro-Israel voters should pick the best person for that job, trusting that Israel needs a strong America more than a deferential president. The writer is professor of history at McGill University. The author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity, and the Challenges of Today, and Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady, his next book Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents will be published by Basic Books this spring.