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WASHINGTON - Jimmy Carter homed in on Gerald Ford after their second television debate. It was 1976 and the two were locked in a close, cruel race. The first president in the history of the United States who had not been elected either president or vice president was pitted against the enigmatic peanut-grower who came out of nowhere and captured the Democratic nomination. The president was perceived as being hostile to Israel after announcing a "reassessment" of the relations between it and the United States, because of a political dispute originating in the period immediately after the Yom Kippur War. The governor of Georgia, who was initially seen as suspect with regard to the Israeli question, became a hero when he promoted the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, but went back to being suspect when he did not hesitate to press the government of Israel. Then as now, Carter denounces Israel and is, in turn, denounced by most of the country's supporters.

Back during the campaign of 1976, though, Carter's mind was on politics, not policy. And the second debate gave him an opportunity to neutralize suspicions and allay apprehensions. When Ford explained how his administration had supported laws to forestall the Arab boycott against Israel, Carter exposed the lie, and rightfully so. The administration, he stated, had done "everything possible to block anti-boycott legislation." The White House had not even agreed to do what the president had supposedly promised: to make public the names of companies that were boycotting Israel and also moving Jews out of positions liable to anger their commercial partners.

Carter's biography shows that his difficulty with Israel is inbuilt and fundamental, though some believed for many years that the true deterioration in his approach started in the wake of his meetings with then-prime minister Menachem Begin. Begin's relations with the U.S. administration had their ups and downs, from the zenith of Camp David to the nadir of the struggle to prevent the sale of AWACS reconnaissance planes to Saudi Arabia; from the initially affable dialogue with president Ronald Reagan, to the brawling over the bombing of Beirut in the first Lebanon War.

According to the Israel Factor panel of experts, Begin performed pretty well in his dealings with the administration in those circumstances - better than his successor, Yitzhak Shamir, and better than Benjamin Netanyahu, whose relations with the Clinton administration were so poor that the U.S. secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, exulted almost publicly at Ehud Barak's victory over Netanyahu in the 1999 elections. For his overall performance in the U.S. arena - after giving proper weight to his dealings with the administration and Congress, and public opinion - the panel gave Begin a grade of 3.125, identical to that of Barak and of the current prime minister, Ehud Olmert. Yitzhak Rabin received the highest overall grade for his "American" performance, in general, and also for his dealings with the administration. Netanyahu, who was unable to get along with the administration, gets the highest grades for his activity vis-a-vis Congress and for shaping public opinion. Together with Ariel Sharon, he receives the second-highest grade, after Rabin, for general performance in the U.S. arena. The panel's lowest grade went to Shamir.

Jerusalem. Dependence

An employee of the current administration, who clearly cannot talk about the Israel Factor on the record, chose an analogy from the world of basketball to explain the disparities in the success of Israeli prime ministers when it comes to communicating with U.S. presidents. It's all a matter of mismatch, he said. For example, the Golden State Warriors, eighth place in the West, ousted the league champions, the Dallas Mavericks, in the first round of the playoffs. It's the first time in history that this happened. But in the second round, the Warriors were having troubles against a team that is far less highly regarded and that no one thought of seriously as a candidate to win the championship: the Utah Jazz.

"A mismatch. That's the secret in basketball, and it's also the secret of the relations between Israeli prime ministers and American presidents," the official said. "Who is suited to play against whom."

The United States, the elder president Bush recalled in the course of pillorying the policy of the Shamir government, gives "nearly $1,000 to every Israeli man, woman and child." Shamir dug in and refused to cooperate with the programs of Bush and his secretary of state, James Baker. Nor was he able to find paths to their heart, or bypass routes to soften the disagreements, and he was inept at communicating with the American public. Accordingly, the panel agrees almost unanimously, Shamir failed in his relations with the United States. His overall grade is 1.875, far lower than any of the others.

That failure played a large part in Shamir's loss in the 1992 elections. Ariel Sharon, who watched from the sidelines, after himself having been burned in a clash with the administration during the 1982 Lebanon War, learned an important lesson: to avoid disagreements with Washington as much as possible. He was also lucky: Like Rabin, with Bill Clinton, Sharon's dealt with a sympathetic, understanding administration that identified with Israel. The panel gave him a reasonable grade, but not outstanding, with regard to American public opinion. His relations with Congress were not exceptional, either; Sharon did not invest enough in them. Still, his overall grade is high. The direct, open channel to the White House was sufficient for his needs.

But Rabin, as we saw, towers over them all. And not only in the final score: also in the internal division between the panelists. Whereas Netanyahu gets a high grade from some of the experts and a lower one from others, as do Barak and Olmert, in regard to Rabin there is total agreement: He gets no less than a 4 for his relations with Clinton and no less than a 3 in the overall grade. The only similar comprehensive agreement is with regard to Shamir: no higher than a 3 in those categories. It's also worth noting that four of the panel members (Gold, Halperin, Pinkas, Rafiah) worked for some of these prime ministers.

South Carolina. Debate

On Tuesday evening, 10 Republican presidential hopefuls met in South Carolina for the second television debate of the primaries season. Eight months before the first vote, in Iowa, and already a second debate? This campaign season is insane, messy, riveting. A trend became apparent in this debate: The Republican candidates for their party's nomination, at least those who lead the pack, are less divided over foreign policy and therefore are more ready to squabble over domestic issues: migration, taxes, health, state and religion, abortion - especially abortion.

The main spotlight was on the leading candidate in the polls, former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani. In the first debate, he was unable to explain coherently his position on abortion, and since then he has been trying to rebuff the criticism that followed. In any event, Giuliani decided to take a risk and gamble on his fate: He is "pro-choice," meaning he does not support a total ban on abortion, though personally he "hates" the practice. Voters in the Republican primaries, many of whom are from the conservative-religious right, face a tricky choice. If this is the issue that takes precedence for them, they will abandon Giuliani; if they decide that there are more important issues on the agenda, they will stay with him, even though if they disagree with him on abortion.

Giuliani is gambling on the Republicans' fears of the return of "the Clintons" to the White House. As the campaign picks up, the key role being played by the former president in the presidential campaign of his wife, Sen. Hillary Clinton, becomes ever more apparent. Giuliani is the candidate who is capable of defeating her - at least according to the polls. Other Republican candidates will have a far harder time. So the dilemma is simple: ideological purity and a high likelihood of losing the elections, or a partial compromise and maintaining the chance of victory.

Many of the opponents of abortion are ardent supporters of Israel. This prompted one of Giuliani's supporters - not a member of his official staff - to take action: He printed copies of the Israel Factor from the Haaretz Internet site in English and distributed them to a few Evangelist friends, albeit not many. For the eighth time, Giuliani leads the group, by more than a whole point, over the second-place candidate (Sen. John McCain this month switched places with former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and with Sen. Clinton).

This is particularly interesting, given the fact that the panel of experts found it difficult to single out any item in which Giuliani?s policy is the most successful. As is the case with most voters, policy proposals are one thing, and support for a candidate is another, entailing a general evaluation of the candidate?s personality and background.

New York. Policy

Hillary Clinton is the unchallenged leader of the Israel Factor when it comes to policy. She obtained the most votes on three questions: the desirable policy in Iraq, the desirable policy toward Syria, and the desirable policy toward the Palestinians. Between three and five members of the panel think that on these issues she offers the most reasonable solutions to the existing situation.

McCain is the preferred candidate to deal with the Iranian nuclear program (five panelists chose him), while six of the panel believe that Sen. Barack Obama will be the most resolute in stemming the slaughter in Darfur, even though Sen. Joseph Biden has been more aggressive on this issue lately.

Obama continues to improve his standing in the eyes of the panel, and might get a few positive votes this week, too. On Wednesday, he presented a new bill to the Senate, which would confirm the right of states to withdraw investments from companies that have commercial relations with the Iranian nuclear project. Florida was the first state to complete such a move, two weeks ago. A state senator, Ted Deutch, explained to Haaretz that this is the use of "economic power when it's needed most."

Obama apparently agrees. His legislation would prevent companies from going to the Supreme Court to challenge laws such as the one in Florida. Whatever the panel thinks, Obama is a real candidate according to all the polls. Maybe the most real. According to some polls, he is the only Democrat who can beat Giuliani, although there are some polls that also find that Clinton can defeat Giuliani. According to pollster.com, which calculates the averages in the different polls for those who are addicted to politics, Giuliani continues to lead in his party, though McCain seemed to be closing the gap this week. In the Democratic Party, Clinton leads over Obama, but her advantage, too, is eroding, and sometimes seems about to vanish.

Nebraska. Surprises

In the past few weeks, Newt Gingrich has been voicing an ongoing, justified complaint that raises the suspicion that the last word has not yet been said about the candidates in this race. Will he run? In the meantime, he isn't, he has not set up a committee to examine his prospects and he is not raising funds, as he emphasized in a long radio interview this week. But Gingrich is still on our list, and with good reason. The television debates, he says, make discussion of the issues superficial and dull; he wants a serious, deep conversation about the agenda's issues. This may be no more than an accurate observation about the problem of holding such a conversation in debates involving 10 candidates. But it may also be a hint: If there is no one around to conduct a serious discussion, I, Newt, will have to do it - as a candidate.

He is not the only one who might be a latecomer, and become a spoiler, for the others. Fred Thompson, an actor in the television series ?Law and Order? and a former senator, continues to show signs of becoming a potential candidate. This month the panel graded him for the first time and gave him a reasonable, not brilliant, score. It?s clear that the panel as a whole sees him as pro-Israel, but he is not yet running and has not said much about the policy he would adopt. The panel doesn?t want to be rash and place him too high, and it?s likely that the first score he received will not necessarily reflect those he will get later in the race, after he shows his cards.

Here is a possibility that will confront the panel with a fascinating dilemma: At the beginning of the week, the Republican senator from Nebraska, Chuck Hagel, hinted that there is still a possibility he will run. If he decides to do so, he might enter the race as an independent. He has received the lowest score from the panel for many months; one panelist explains that this is because he is "multilateral in his international approach." Others offer similar reasons: "He has a simplistic concept of foreign policy and the Middle East," "he is the least sympathetic to Israel," "his cold attitude toward Israel," "he is ready to accept countries that support terrorism."

Hagel, who does not conform to the Republican line, is one of the fiercest critics of the Bush administration. In the panel's perception, his attitude toward Israel will be closer to that of the first president Bush than the second. But what will the panel do if Hagel realizes his dream and runs as an independent - not alone, but on a ticket with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg? In the past week there has been increasing talk about this possibility, which remains remote but riveting. Hagel and Bloomberg have been conducting a lengthy dialogue and there is an understanding between them. It is not clear which of them would be the presidential candidate and which the vice president, if they decide to run together. Nor is it clear whether a candidate without a party stands a chance. Independents in the past, such as Ross Perot in 1992, have not ended up in the White House. Perot did, however, split the Republican vote, and brought about Bill Clinton's victory and the ouster of Bush, Sr., after just one term.