M.J. Rosenberg
Israel Policy Forum (Opinion)
February 1, 2008 - 6:40pm

On Tuesday, millions of voters in 21 states will make their choice for President. Although it is unlikely that the two nominations will be sewed up on February 5, Super Tuesday will mark the end of the preliminary stage of “The Making of the President 2008” and will move us very close to the main event. From a roster of more than a dozen potential Presidents, we are now down to just Senators Clinton and Obama on the Democratic side and Senator McCain and Governors Romney and Huckabee for the Republicans. This early deciding is relatively new. In 1960, Lyndon Johnson’s campaign for President did not start until days before the July convention. Robert Kennedy launched his 1968 bid on St. Patrick’s Day. 

But here we are in February 2008 and, in both parties, the winnowing down to the two finalists is well underway. Thus far, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has barely been mentioned by any of the candidates. If past history is any guide, it won’t be mentioned much and, when it is, only in front of Jewish audiences where effusive declarations of support for Israel will be offered.

We all know why. Candidates fear to speak with any candor about Israel because they suspect, and not without cause, that the only people paying attention to what they say will be zealots. 

Candidates are not dumb. They have seen the polls, which show that the overwhelming majority of pro-Israel Jews support the two-state solution and the peace process. But they also know that, overwhelming as that majority may be, it is a soft majority. Pro-Israel voters who favor negotiations do not vote solely on the basis of a candidate’s position on the Middle East. They vote, like most Americans, on a host of issues that affect all Americans. Zealots don’t vote that way. They vote (and make political contributions) based on one issue. Like all single-issue blocs they have a disproportionate influence on the way a candidate addresses their sole concern. 

In fact, the zealous single-issue voter does not require all that much to gain his support. All he wants is for a candidate to mouth hawkish pieties and never ever to indicate any sympathy for Palestinians.

Of course, these ritualistic endorsements of the status quo do nothing for either Israel or for the United States. Moreover, there is not a single candidate running for President who does not know that the continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict grievously damages U.S. interests in the Middle East, including the security of Israel. It is just that the candidates fear that saying so will grievously damage their political prospects.

They are wrong. Americans of all backgrounds understand that the United States and Israel are both injured by the seemingly endless conflict. Just because they are not single-issue voters does not mean that they are indifferent to what a candidate says about it. They understand that you can’t promote change in the Middle East while parroting organizational talking points. 

And, of course, it doesn’t help Israel in the slightest. Candidates need to realize that the political insiders who are demanding that they stick to tried and failed formulas are not so much concerned with Israel as they are determined that their standing as would-be influence peddlers not be challenged. Getting presidential candidates to grovel is heady stuff, and anyone who believes that the joy of it derives from love of Israel is awfully naïve.

It’s not about Israel. It’s just fun and games. “Look what I got candidate X to say. See how he showed up at our dinner. Listen how he bashed the Palestinians.”

Then there is the truly ugly part of the game—this one played not by the power brokers but by the ideological zealots and bigots. The smearing of candidates as anti-Israel or anti-Semitic by invoking utterly meaningless past actions (Clinton’s kissing Suha Arafat) or flat-out lies (devout Christian Obama is a secret Muslim). The Internet has revolutionized the delivering of information but, even more, the delivery of disinformation, lies, and smears.

The smear campaigns may not damage the candidates but they could do serious damage to long-standing strong relationships between America’s various minority groups. It was the last century’s most vile totalitarians who articulated the “big lie” theory. They asserted that if a lie is big enough, and repeated often enough, it will be believed. They were right. 

The lies about the candidates are not nearly as consequential but they are nonetheless destructive. The idea that these attacks are emanating from the lunatic-fringe of the Jewish community—utterly unrepresentative of the community at large which remains as liberal as ever—is as ironic as it is troubling. Even more troubling is that supposedly intelligent people believe racist libels simply because they show up in their in-box.

Meanwhile, of course, Israel’s travails continue. The very policies pushed on public officials and candidates by supposedly pro-Israel advocacy groups have produced disaster for Israel. They ensured that U.S. assistance to Abu Mazen’s Palestinian Authority would be so stingy that Hamas would beat Fatah in the Palestinian elections. They supported only Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza but not a negotiated agreement with the Palestinians that would have gotten Israel out of Gaza without transforming it into a terror launching pad. They pressured the Bush administration not to insist on the immediate dismantling of the illegal outposts and checkpoints not needed for Israeli security even though such actions would have boosted Abbas and harmed Hamas. They encouraged neither prisoner exchanges nor cease-fires, nor a permanent settlements freeze, oblivious to how they were strengthening Hamas. In short, these status quo positions—which candidates are pressured to endorse—have done nothing for Israel, other than to perpetuate the misery typified by the words Gaza and Sderot.

So what is a candidate to say, particularly about the Arab-Israeli conflict?

I’ve written this before. A candidate should say: “If I am elected President, I will do everything in my power to bring about negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians with the goal of achieving peace and security for Israel and a secure state for the Palestinians. As a supporter of Israel, I believe that Israel’s surest route to security is by reaching an agreement with the Palestinians. Furthermore, I believe that achieving an equitable Israeli-Palestinian agreement will advance America’s interests throughout the Middle East and the Muslim world. Peace between Israel and the Arabs will only be achieved by means of U.S. leadership and I intend to provide it.”

That should be the basic message just as it should be our basic policy.

Grandstand rhetoric about a candidate’s undying love for Israel is meaningless if not coupled with the promise of leadership to help bring it peace.

This does not mean that a candidate should avoid expressing warm feelings about our Middle East ally. A majority of Americans share those feelings and would agree with any candidate who said that one of his priorities will be to ensure that Israel survives and thrives.

But no candidate should be allowed to simply stop there. Americans, all Americans, need to know what a candidate would do to end a conflict that not only threatens Israel’s survival but has harmed American interests throughout the world. 

Pro-Israel policies should produce results that are good for Israel. That is obvious. Equally obvious is that the policies promoted by the single-issue crowd have produced the opposite. Pro-Israel? I think not.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017