Israel Has Now Become a Player in U.S. Politics

Sheldon Adelson is the biggest donor in Israeli politics. Now is the perfect time for everyone else to have their say too.

Sharp-eyed viewers of the CNN-broadcasted Western Republican Debate on October 18 will have spied a portly man in the front rows of the audience seated by a trim woman, enthusiastically applauding the presidential hopefuls when they tore into the White House’s current occupant. Yes, well spotted, Sheldon and Miri Adelson were indeed there, making the most of the evening.

Anderson Cooper ‏was the official MC, lobbing questions at the candidates. But your real host for the evening was Mr. Adelson − not only in his capacity as GOP super-mega-donor and owner of the Venetian casino complex where the debate was taking place. Sheldon may have lost the richest-Jew-in-the-world title to Oracle’s Larry Ellison, but he and Miri hold onto the mantle of the greatest Jewish philanthropists of our generation − not only bankrolling the Taglit-Birthright program, the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum and the Hebrew Academy of Las Vegas, but also being the biggest donors in Israeli politics through founding and financing the pro-Benjamin Netanyahu free daily, Yisrael Hayom.

Republican debate - Reuters - 18.10.2011

Israel barely featured in this debate, which focused mainly on domestic issues, but the five most prominent candidates ‏(Ron Paul who is calling for an end to U.S. foreign aid to all nations, including Israel, was not invited‏) each made time in their busy campaign schedules to meet Yisrael Hayom’s foreign editor and hold forth on their Middle East policies.

If the tabloid is to be believed, a Republican president will be somewhere on the far-right fringes of Likud. All of the candidates were much more forceful than the Israeli prime minister in opposing any talk of a return to the 1967 borders. Front-runner Mitt Romney’s answer to whether he would move the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was especially breathtaking. “I don’t think America should play the role of the leader of the peace process,” he said. “Instead we should stand by our ally. Again, my inclination is to follow the guidance of our ally Israel, as to where our facilities and embassies would exist.” I’m surprised the American media did not pick up on Romney’s willingness to forfeit his country’s leadership in a major foreign-policy region, but then, he is the moderate.

The others were competing over who could lambast Barack Obama more violently for throwing Israel under the bus. And this is the same Obama who less than four weeks earlier gave the most pro-Israel speech heard on the stage of the UN General Assembly in decades.

Politically tone-deaf

I don’t know whether it was a coincidence, but the very next day after the debate, the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League chose to publish their National Pledge for Unity on Israel. The two veteran organizations want all candidates, Republican and Democrat, to sign up to a declaration stating that “U.S.-Israel friendship should never be used as a political wedge issue.”

The AJC-ADL initiative is slightly baffling. Both organizations are avowedly pro-Israel, so why do they feel the need to tone down a presidential campaign that in its earliest stages has already become a competition over who loves Israel the most? The pledge seems politically tone-deaf when it calls for “U.S. leadership in the efforts to achieve an agreement resolving the conflict that results in two states − the Jewish state of Israel and a Palestinian state.” Have they seen any recent evidence of a future Republican president supporting the two-state solution, let alone leading it?

In the time-honored, nonpartisan fashion of the Jewish-American establishment, AJC director David Harris and ADL head Abe Foxman are simply hedging their bets. Obama may turn out to be a one-term wonder but a wise Jew would not bet on it. He still has the presidency at his disposal as he fights the next 12 months and, if triumphant, four more years unfettered by the constraints of fund-raising and electoral politics. An even-handed approach may be more prudent but ultimately it is anachronistic. Harris and Foxman are simply locking the stable door long after the horse has galloped across the prairie.

Unity over American support for Israel along the old lines − namely, that the Jewish community prevails upon whatever administration is currently in the Oval Office to support whatever government is in power in Jerusalem − has been broken for years. J Street broke the consensus first by calling upon George W. Bush’s administration to pressure Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians. But it was Netanyahu himself who drove the nail into the coffin of bipartisanship over Israel by aligning himself with the Republicans against a sitting Democrat president. Israel is now a player in American domestic politics, and Jewish-American leaders who insist on remaining on the sidelines seem faintly ridiculous. Like it or not, Israel is a “wedge issue.”

Netanyahu is critically attuned to American political currents. If he feels that the coming months offer him an opportunity to launch a strike against Iran’s nuclear installations, part of his reasoning has to be that a president fighting for survival against the most pro-Israel GOP in history cannot afford to oppose such a strike. In extremis, Obama may even choose to have the United States launch this strike itself, in the hope that it will give the administration a better chance of stabilizing the post-attack region and to steal the Republicans’ thunder.

However the events of the next 12 months play out, one conclusion cannot be escaped. The lines between domestic and foreign policy have been blurred out of existence and there is no longer a single meaning to “support for Israel.”

As thousands of delegates gather next week in Denver for the Jewish Federations’ annual general assembly, they should be clear in their minds that this year they no longer have any need to hide their personal positions. Whether they are convinced that bombing Iran is an existential necessity or a calamitous move; whether they believe that Israel cannot withdraw to the 1967 “Auschwitz borders” or are certain that, by building 2,000 more homes across the Green Line, the Jewish state is hurtling down the slope to international isolation, this is the moment to be heard. Sheldon Adelson has already committed his billions, now it’s everyone else’s turn.