U.S. Presidential Candidates Still Working Out Positions on Israel

Republican candidates Bachmann and Gingrich voicing their ardent support for Israel, but no plans for practical steps seem in sight.

Last week, Steven Simon, the new U.S. National Security Council director for the Middle East and North Africa - replacing Daniel Shapiro, who becomes the ambassador to Israel - warned in a conference call with U.S. Jewish leaders that "we've got basically a month to see if we can work something out with the Israelis and Palestinians on accepting [President Barack Obama's] principles as a basis for negotiations." If that happens, he said, the U.S. administration is "somewhat confident that the Palestinians would drop their action in the UN."

Two major deadlines have been pushed back in the past two and a half years - assessments on the Iranian bomb and "peace agreement in one year." But this one, based on the Palestinians' support and their confidence that this time they're winning - plus Simon's hint that the Palestinians gave a somewhat positive answer to Obama's parameters and Israel is dragging its feet, means now it's for real.

The one-month framework means Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might not have time for reading this month. But if he has, it might be worth reading the annual assessment by the Jewish People Policy Institute. The institute will present its report to the Israeli government by the end of the month.

An attempt to assess the relationship between the Israeli government, the Jewish community in the United States and the U.S. administration is hardly new, but some conclusions shouldn't be ignored.

One of the points mentioned reiterates Israel's position - that it doesn't want to find itself in the middle of a conflict between the rival parties, lest it lose bipartisan support.

"The picture currently being formed must set off alarm bells in Israel and among Jewish organizations in the U.S., due to the threat of the Arab-Israeli conflict being turned into a point of contention between the two parties, thus endangering the desire to preserve Democratic as well as Republican support for Israel", the report states.

"Every possible effort should be made to prevent the Middle East conflict from becoming a point of contention between the Republican and Democratic parties in the United States, and to remove Israel and the Jewish community from the American, internal political debate."

Jewish donors and Obama

Well, it seems it's too late. It's too early, though, to judge whether Obama's position on the issue will harm him in terms of Jewish support. Chairman Marc Stanley of the National Jewish Democratic Council, which will co-host a fundraiser for Obama in about a week, told Haaretz he "absolutely disagrees" that this election will be tougher regarding Jewish donors.

Still, many political veterans in Washington say they don't remember the discourse being as bitter on this issue.

"The attitude toward Obama is loaded and suspicious," states the report, citing leading Mideast analysts and Jewish leaders on Obama's attitude toward Israel. "Most believe his actions should be watched closely" because he might pay "with Israeli currency for closer relations with Islamic countries."

That's the attitude Obama supporters are trying to defuse. The White House recently put a page on its website explaining the president's position on Israel, called "Advancing Israel's Security and Supporting Peace." Former White House chief of staff and current Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post explaining why his former boss cares about Israel, stressing the same points Obama presented in his two speeches on the Middle East.

But apparently some of his Republican rivals aren't convinced. As Rep. Michele Bachmann said at the Faith and Freedom conference this month: "America must do what all previous presidents have done since Harry Truman and stand with Israel. I stand with Israel."

She didn't mention any specifics; for example, an alternative to Obama's approach to avert September's vote at the UN General Assembly on a Palestinian state. Bachmann recently announced her candidacy, but September is Obama's headache, not the Republicans'. It's also unclear how Glenn Beck's August rally in Jerusalem, which is reportedly to be attended by businessman and columnist Herman Cain, will help with this issue either. Cain has already announced his presidential bid.

If anything, Newt Gingrich's call on Sunday at the Republican Jewish Coalition gathering in California to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem was a bit closer to a practical step, but with the lack of constructive alternatives offered by the Republicans so far, the question is whether digging friends deeper is what real friends are for. With the candidates' reluctance to talk to the Israeli press, the question is whether they really care about Israel, or if they're using the issue for domestic politics.

As for the "1967 borders with agreed swaps," it might even be a good time to quote the November 11, 2010 joint statement by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Netanyahu following their meeting that day: "The Prime Minister and the Secretary agreed on the importance of continuing direct negotiations to achieve our goals." Clinton reiterated that "the United States believes that through good-faith negotiations, the parties can mutually agree on an outcome which ends the conflict and reconciles the Palestinian goal of an independent and viable state, based on the 1967 lines, with agreed swaps, and the Israeli goal of a Jewish state with secure and recognized borders that reflect subsequent developments and meet Israeli security requirements."

U.S. still paramount

France has presented its own peace initiative, but, as Simon said in his conference call, the United States is still the main player, and if there is an agreement, the U.S. will help draft it. Israel, anyway, hasn't shown a willingness to strengthen ties elsewhere, while, as the Jewish People Policy Institute's report admits, "the American administration too has doubts, mistrusting the Israeli government's sincerity with respect to the peace process."

Discussing mistrust and hypocrisy, one part of the report is quite touching, trying to pave a path forward.

"Past experience shows that cultural values, democracy and common interests of Israel and the U.S. eventually overcome controversies and even severe crises. The most recent events require intensifying efforts to achieve strategic cooperation and coordination between the U.S., Israel and the Jewish community," it says.

And then there is a concrete proposal: "Israel should be conscious of American global interests without diminishing its own critical security requirements." Also, it should consider a "Buy American" campaign that encourages, for example, the purchasing of American cars by Israelis, the government and the Israel Defense Forces. It should also promote "the import and use of U.S. goods and services."

When I visited Michigan while the U.S. car industry was near collapse, I asked a car dealer to convince me why his cars were better than the foreign alternatives. He was apparently in such a depression that he said, "Well, with good maintenance, it doesn't really matter what car you drive."

Israelis are addicted to American culture, but so far, American cars are not the most popular in Israel. But it could be interesting to see this experiment in loyalty if the report's proposal is adopted.

One more point the report asks to consider is the young generation, those who can unofficially be tagged "Beinart followers" - referring to Peter Beinart, the young Jewish American journalist who has criticized Israel.

"Despite the erosion of the standing of new Jewish organizations that attempted to establish a lobby in opposition to the Jewish American establishment and Israel [a hint on J Street's public relations troubles vis-a-vis Israel], there is a continuing trend among the young, American generation to organize independently to promote agendas, unrelated to the establishment or Israel," the report says.

"Against this background, Jewish organizations must make a special effort to open their ranks to the young and encourage them to assume key roles in the community. Israel, for its part, must use its resources to increase its investment in the future of the young generation, in education and in expanding the frameworks shared by Israel and the Diaspora."

Meanwhile, Israel and much of the Jewish establishment chose the "my way or highway" approach. Bringing in an impressive number of students, the AIPAC conference didn't offer more openness in this respect than in previous years.

As for Israel - well, we're hypocritical too. Before we come to ask again for the U.S. Jewish community's unconditional support, we should ask a Kennedy-style question: Do we really know them? Are we interested enough in their lives? Do we look good enough to earn their unconditional support?

Newt Gingrich - Reuters