Chemi Shalev
Haaretz (Opinion)
November 28, 2011 - 1:00am

In the first Gulf War in 1991 and once again in the war against Iraq in 2003, Israel was asked by the U.S. administration to maintain a “low profile," in order to avoid the perception that America was fighting with Israel, or on its behalf. Both George Bushes, senior and junior, considered it prudent to relegate Israel to the sidelines – even when it was under direct attack, as was the case in 1991 - in order to help establish international coalitions and to maintain public support for the war, especially in the Muslim world. In both cases, Israel complied.

Of course, such precautions won’t be relevant if a Republican-led U.S. administration should ever contemplate attacking Iran in order to prevent it from obtaining nuclear weapons. After all, the contenders for the Republican presidential nomination - with the glaring exception of the neo-isolationist Ron Paul - are on record as saying that if America attacks Iran, it will be, first and foremost, in order to “save Israel," as Texas Governor Rick Perry framed it. Professors Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer can already add a brief appendix to their highly-controversial 2007 book “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy” that will contain a transcript of last week’s CNN Republican foreign policy debate, followed by the letters QED – “which was to be demonstrated.”

Herman Cain said the U.S. would “join Israel” in attacking Iran, as long as the Israelis came up with a credible plan; Newt Gingrich said the U.S. would bomb Tehran only as a “last recourse” but would be happy to team up with Israel in a “conventional” attack; Michele Bachmann has already indicated that the Pentagon should present “war plans” in order to rescue “millions of Israelis who are on the precipice of losing their lives”; Rick Perry said “if we're going to be serious about saving Israel, we better get serious about Syria and Iran”; Rick Santorum made up for lost time in the debate by declaring later, “I’d be working with Israel and be very clear with Iran that we are preparing a military strike"; Mitt Romney thinks that the answer to Iran is to go to Israel “to show the world we care about that country and that region”; and former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, usually the most cautious Republican debater on matters of foreign policy, said “our interest is to ensure that Israel - that Iran does not go nuclear. Our interest in the Middle East is Israel.”

Not Saudi Arabia. Not the Gulf emirates. Not the Maghreb. Not the Horn of Africa. Not a stable Iraq. Not a moderate Egypt. Not the free flow of oil. Not containment of China and Russia. Not Islamic moderation, not even the fight against jihadist terrorism. Just Israel.

Of course, one can well understand why many Jews and Israelis might kvell - Yiddish for beam with joy - at such blanket, unequivocal expressions of love and support for Israel, especially at a time when the saying “the whole world is against us” has become a widely-accepted axiom and President Obama is perceived by many as being indifferent to Israeli interests, at best, if not actually hostile, at worst. But “too much love will kill you”, as Queen’s Brian May once wrote, and these protestations of absolute devotion may come back one day to haunt not only Jews and Israel, but also the Republicans themselves.

As the flurry of anti-Israeli tweets following last week’s CNN debate showed, many Americans were taken aback at what could easily be portrayed as the subornation of American foreign policy to Israeli interests, and the predominance of the Israel-Iran issue over such “minor” foreign policy issues as China, the Arab Spring or the Eurozone debt crisis, which weren’t even mentioned. And even though polls show that a solid majority of Americans support Israel – especially when compared to the Palestinians – it is highly doubtful whether such support stretches to include a conflict that might plunge America and the rest of the world into a political and economic crisis of unprecedented proportions.

Of course, the main reason for the current Republican lovefest with Israel isn’t so much the Jewish lobby, the Jewish vote or even Jewish campaign contributions, but rather the intense courtship of the Israel-adoring Christian Evangelical vote, which is likely to play a pivotal role in the upcoming Republican primaries. These voters view oaths of loyalty to Israel as a qualifying benchmark for all aspiring candidates and they are hardly likely to be deterred by the possibility of conflagration in the Middle East which is, after all, but a necessary dispensationalist end-of-days landmark “on the Road to Armageddon” as Timothy Weber’s 2004 book explains.

But for many, less “Israelocentric” Americans, as well as for the hundreds of millions of people throughout the world who are closely monitoring the Republican race, the unabashed and unqualified Republican embrace of Israel at the expense of other, no-less-critical issues for America’s well-being might very well be seen as confirming the delusional conspiratorial descriptions of rabid Jew-baiters. This might not only prove to be “bad for the Jews” in the long run, but could also come back to haunt the Republicans themselves should the issue of Iran still be on the table if and when one of them is sworn into office on January 20, 2013 (or January 21, as the 20th is a Sunday).

A Republican president, no less than President Obama, would have to contend with widespread opposition among America’s top military brass and its economic and business leaders to a war that could ignite a region-wide conflagration, precipitate a dramatic rise in the price of oil, bring about a sharp increase in the U.S. budget deficit and, potentially, push the economies of both the U.S. and Europe over the edge and into the abyss. Which of the two potential presidents would be more inclined and more capable of weathering such a confrontation is certainly a matter of opinion and debate.

But a Republican president - unlike Obama – would be handicapped from the outset by the inverted “Nixon to China” principle, which makes it harder for right-wing presidents to mobilize public opinion to go to war , and then doubly encumbered by the Bush legacy, internally and in the international arena, where memories of what was widely perceived as the former president’s go-it-alone, devil-may-care cowboyish foreign policy that left America virtually isolated on the world stage haven’t been as thoroughly erased as they appear to have been among America’s conservatives.

And even though there is a compelling argument to be made for U.S. military intervention against Iran in order to safeguard a wide range of vital American interests - including Israel - a Republican president would automatically be judged by his own Israeli-inspired declarations of love and war. The Iranian propaganda ministry, one can rest assured, has already archived the videotape of the Republican debates as a public relations weapon to be drawn just when the time is right.

And while Saudi Arabia and the Gulf oil countries would be sure to lend Washington discreet tactical as well as financial support under any and all circumstances, the volatile Arab “street”, once maligned as insignificant but now the critical element in determining the future of many Arab regimes, would easily fall prey to anti-Isra eli incitement, as would left-leaning public opinion throughout Muslim World and Western Europe. This would be true in any case, of course, but doubly so if a Republican president was at the helm.

One can argue what true intentions lay behind Obama’s statement in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech that “those who seek peace cannot stand idly by as nations arm themselves for nuclear war” – but there should be no doubt that it is Obama who would stand a far better chance than any Republican of mustering international support, of enlisting coalition partners and of minimizing Arab rage in case America goes to war against Iran. In fact, in a twist of irony that is surely bitter for Obama-bashers, it is the president’s perceived distance from Israel and his portrayal as being “even-handed” that places him in a superior position to advance what is indeed, when all is said and done, a critical Israel interest that is still best served by maintaining a judicious low profile rather than by engaging in short-sighted, politically-motivated saber-rattling.

Perhaps that is another reason for Israel to strike now, while Obama is still in power, rather than later, when a Republican president might find that he has tied his own hands in primary-time electioneering.


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