The 2012 Presidential election in the United States was supposed to ignore foreign policy. The economic disaster of 2008 is still being felt deeply by millions of Americans. That was supposed to be the arena for incumbent President Barack Obama, and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney.
But, as more and more on-the-fence voters realized that Romney’s proposed solution was to have the middle class, through taxes, and the poor, through loss of services, pay for massive tax cuts for his ultra-rich friends, Mitt started taking hits. The jingoism and ridiculous theatrics at the Republican convention didn’t give Romney a significant boost in the polls either, and despite some incredible bungling, Obama’s party, thanks in great measure to former President Bill Clinton, got him the push he needed at the Democratic version.
So, Mitt was feeling desperate, and he clutched at the wrong straw. He decided, in the wake of the deadly terrorist attack on the US consulate in Benghazi to attack the President. To call that a blunder would be an understatement. It showed Romney’s true colors, indifferent to US lives, clueless when it comes to the world outside our borders, but most importantly a shameless opportunist. It played very poorly among just about every American voter, irrespective of ideology. Including Obama haters.
That straw he clutched was probably the final one for Romney’s candidacy, barring a devastating event sometime in the next six weeks. And, as ironic as it is that foreign policy blunder would be the event that finally opened the gap between Romney and Obama, it is also fitting. Because the 2012 election may well mark a turning point in the politics of foreign policy in the United States.
It is routine for presidential candidates to try to “out-pro-Israel” each other. But Romney took it a step further in this campaign, and turned US policy on Israel into a partisan issue. This was a major shift, because the “special relationship” between the United States and Israel has always been rock solid, based in great measure, on the fact that it was a bipartisan stance. 2012 may mark a shift in this reality, and that leads to the possibility that US policy may start to reflect the views of most Americans, as well as a good number of US leaders whose views have been sidelined due to the myopic focus on Israeli fears, desires and priorities.
In December 2011, when Romney was still duking it out with fellow Republicans for the nomination, he described how he would act regarding policy and major statements connected to the Israel-Palestine conflict: “I’d get on the phone to my friend Bibi Netanyahu and say, ‘Would it help if I said this? What would you like me to do?’” Who needs an Israel Lobby when you have a President who flat out states he is willing to hand the reins of White House policy over to a foreign leader?
During the campaign, Romney’s good friend, Bibi all but endorsed him for the presidency, treating Romeny not as a foreign dignitary but as one would treat an honored head of state during the Republican’s visit to Israel in July. Romney responded in kind, cancelling a meeting with Labor Party leader Shelly Yachimovitch at the last minute, embarrassing the opposition. And, famously, he spoke of Israel’s economic success relative to the Palestinians as being due to “at least culture and a few other things.”
In recent days, the rhetoric from Netanyahu has also been ratcheted up. He sharply criticized Obama to the US Ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, in the presence of the Republican head of the House Intelligence Committee, Mike Rogers, and he called Obama out for not setting specific red lines and time limits on Iran to stop their nuclear program or face a US assault, drawing a sharp retort from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and even a scolding letter from California Senator Barbara Boxer, a long-time counter in the pocket of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC.)
Indeed, many actions of both Netanyahu and his henchman, Ehud Barak, have seemed to be testing the very outer limits of the US-Israel relationship, as I have detailed. Bibi seems to have gone all in on a Romney victory. Perhaps he had no choice, as his biggest financial backer, the shady casino owner, Sheldon Adelson, has also dumped millions of dollars into Romney’s campaign. And, it is certainly true that if Bibi is creating a widening rift in blind support, or at least acquiescence, in both major US parties for any and all Israeli policies, it is likely to take shape long after he is out of office.
But those seeds have some soil to grow in. A major study from the Chicago Council on Foreign Affairs, examining American attitudes on US foreign policy found that, as has always been the case, 65% of Americans think the US should be neutral with regard to Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians and other neighbors. Some of the other findings might surprise many: “Fifty-two percent think U.S. government leaders should be ready to meet and talk with leaders of Hamas, and half (50%) say they would support sending U.S. troops as part of an international peacekeeping unit to enforce a peace agreement.” That surprised me.
Less surprising was this finding: “Large majorities of Democrats (78%) and Independents (69%) favor not taking sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, while a slight majority of Republicans (51%) want to take Israel’s side.” And the fiasco over Jerusalem at the Democratic National Conference demonstrated just how strong this difference is. When Obama, from numerous reports, responded to Republican criticism of the removal of a plank in the party platform supporting Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel by pressing for its re-insertion, the conference chair was quite surprised to find he didn’t have a clear majority for the restoration in the room, let alone the 2/3 majority required. So, since it was a voice vote, he simply said that the required majority was there, eliciting quite an unhappy reaction from the crowd.
Most Democrats are still positively inclined toward Israel, but they also believe matters like Jerusalem, which are universally recognized as “final status issues” to be resolved by the Israelis and Palestinians in direct negotiations should be… well, resolved by the two parties through negotiations. And this kind of subversion of a democratic process doesn’t sit any better with Democrats than it would with any other group. The political division was thus widened.
There are other factors at play here as well. Jewish support for Israel is increasingly being defined by wealthy, and more importantly, orthodox Jews, which are the two groups that lean the most Republican in the overwhelmingly Democratic American Jewish community. Israel’s increasing shift to the right, which does not seem to be slowing down, exacerbates this divide and alienates younger, liberal Jews, who are overwhelmingly Democrats. And there already exists a strain among Democrats who support Israel but are not keen on its current government, that gives Israel at least some of the blame for the collapse of the peace process, or subscribes to a “Realist” foreign policy, which frowns on emotional attachments to foreign countries and rests on strategic assessments of national interests, a ground much shakier for Israel to stand on in the US.
So, there are factors that could lead to a partisan split over Israel over the long haul. And that’s why the pro-Israel Lobby, both Jewish and Christian wings, is so busy and active. But the triumvirate of Bibi, Romney and Adelson have accelerated this process and given an opening to Democratic activists to exploit. It is possible, with dedication and devotion, that US policy can take a more sober approach under Democratic controlled governments if a partisan distinction is drawn.
Naturally, Republicans will define such a distinction as their being pro-Israel and Democrats being anti-Israel. But in reality, Democrats would be supporting Israel and following the will of their constituents by keeping the US neutral in Israel conflicts and having it fill the role it never has—that of a broker of peace, instead of Israel’s lawyer. But that is a very lofty goal, and it is one that will require a great deal of work, time, and money.
But the convention, as well as every poll, has shown the potential is there. By pandering to the basest fears of Israelis and cooperating with Israeli leaders who always raise the sword rather than sit at the table and stoke the fears of their own people while also raising the real dangers Israelis face, the US has been anything but a friend and ally to Israel since the days of Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency. The Republican Party, top to bottom, believes in this course of action. The Democrats don’t have anything like that kind of uniform devotion to these misguided policies. They’re a mix of true believers, ignoramuses and toadies who are pressured into supporting these policies against their better judgment because there is not, and has never really been, any countervailing political pressure.
Recent events provide an opportunity to change that state of affairs. However, it depends on activism within the Democratic Party, fundraising for candidates who will advocate a different course for US Mideast policy and a commitment to work at this for years. Frankly, that kind of commitment hasn’t even been hinted at among progressive forces on this issue. Maybe now, that the Middle East is changing rapidly and more and more Americans are getting nervous about it, we can find more people willing to devote themselves to change.
If Democrats can’t be moved by the tragedy of the Palestinians or the black hole of doom we are helping Israel to rush down, maybe they can be motivated by national and self-interest. The case has been tried and failed miserably in the past, but maybe now that the Republicans have opened the partisan rift and many Democrats have seen how the party’s own process is manipulated into foolish policies, we have something new to work with. It may be a thin hope, but considering how bleak the future for everyone concerned is if US policy in the region doesn’t change, it behooves us to grasp whatever hope we can. It’s certainly worth trying.