Israel becoming ‘political football’ in US

Conservatives have increasingly lambasted Obama for abandoning US allies and appeasing its enemies.

US Republican candidates 390 (photo credit: Reuters)
US Republican candidates 390
(photo credit: Reuters)
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. Bush.
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.
Jewish 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, Cong.
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 best.
Nonetheless, the jockeying over Zionist credentials shows that in the current presidential race, it is hip to be pro-Israel.
‘We’re with Israel’
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 January.
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 with Jerusalem.
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.
Santorum 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.
“To 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.”
More notably, 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 Mideast allies.
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 cautioned.
But Gingrich stood his ground, declaring that he was simply speaking the truth, just as Ronald Reagan had called the Soviet Union an “evil empire.”
“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 timid.”
No apologies
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.
“America remains the one indispensable nation in world affairs – and as long as I’m president, I intend to keep it that way,” Obama decreed.
Some analysts 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 Afghanistan.
“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.
Santorum recently 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.
Gingrich 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 weapon.”
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.”
Indeed, 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 some.
“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 (