Seven Ways Israel Could Haunt the 2008 Campaign

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Something big has happened to the Israel issue in the 2008 presidential race.

It has disappeared.

John McCain and Sarah Palin, who in key states like Florida may have the most to gain from an unabashedly pro-Israel stance, made no mention of the Jewish state in their centerpiece acceptance speeches last week.Neither did Joe Biden, who was to have shored Barack Obama's pro-Israel credentials with undecided Jewish voters.

Of the four, only Obama mentioned Israel in his acceptance address - only once, and, significantly, the focus of the reference was on Tehran. "You don't protect Israel and deter Iran just by talking tough in Washington."

Does this mean that the U.S. Jewish vote no longer counts? Not at all.

There are still at least seven key states, rich in electoral votes, in which Jewish voters could put McCain or Obama over the top.

While the Jewish vote has not diminished in potential importance, research suggests that Israel figures little in the bedrock concerns of Jewish voters. In a wide-ranging poll conducted late last year, the American Jewish Committee asked a representative cross-section of U.S. Jews to choose the campaign issue most important to them.

A total of 23 percent of the respondents chose the economy and jobs. Health care was second, with 19 percent. Another 16 percent said the war in Iraq was the most important issue, with 14 percent choosing terrorism and national security.

Support for Israel trailed far behind, even with issues of immigration to the United States and the energy crisis, at 6 percent each.

It will come as scant surprise that Americans, whether Jewish or not, are Americans first. But there may be something instructive for Israelis and even Palestinians in another section of the poll, which asked U.S. Jews their assessment of prospects for peace in the Middle East.

A strong majority of 55 percent of respondents, asked if they thought talks between Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas could lead to peace in the foreseeable future, answered no. Asked if they thought that Israel could forge a peace with a Hamas-led Palestinian government, the no response rose to almost three out of four.

It could be argued that the protracted stalemate at the negotiating table, coupled with a brittle truce along the Israel-Hamas border, has taken the Israel issue - and its impassioned intra-Diaspora debates over settlements, dividing Jerusalem, defensible borders and the like - off the table in the American presidential campaign.

Many of the dramatic and unexpected events of the past four years, the disengagement from Gaza, rocket attacks into Israel, and the Hamas takeover of the Strip, appear to have fostered a consensus of despair among American Jews, a sense that, whatever one believes should happen to effect change in the Holy Land, nothing will.

Adding to a muddling consensus were President George Bush's landmark breaks with prior U.S. Mideast foreign policy endorsements. Bush set himself apart from much of his faith-based Republican constituency when he backed the uprooting of Jewish settlements, permanent blocs of settlement inside the West Bank, and, particularly, his explicit support for the establishment of an independent Palestine in the territories.

The pessimism of U.S. Jews over peace prospects may have also reduced hawk-dove friction over the statehood question. Asked if they currently favored the creation of a Palestinian states given "the current situation," only 46 percent of respondents said yes, markedly down from 54 percent just the year before.

Whether as cause or consequence, the Democratic and Republican party platforms for 2008 both bear strong echoes of positions held by the AIPAC pro-Israel lobby.

For the time being, then, Israel has, in effect, ceased to exist as a campaign issue. But its wallpaper status may be no more than one news cycle away from turning center stage.

Here are six ways the Israel issue could haunt the major parties:

1. A Third - and much more violent - Intifada

Experience has shown that if the Palestinians sense that Washington and the world have put the cause of Palestinian nationalism on the back burner, if the peace process is perceived to be moribund, and economic and social hardships remain grave in the territories, a new uprising may well erupt.

If it does, as it did in 1987 and 2000, past experience suggests that armed Palestinian groups may markedly escalate the level of violence against Israeli civilian centers, perhaps through massive use of more sophisticated and longer-range rockets ? capable, perhaps, of striking Tel Aviv - and unexpected new forms of suicide terrorism.

The effect on the campaign could be expected to depend on Israel's military response. Both the Obama and McCain campaigns would be expected to support Israel's right to self-defense, but if the response included prolonged IDF incursions or shelling of residential areas with large numbers of civilian casualties, the Democrats could be under pressure to voice reservations over Israeli actions.

If Iran so chose, this could also lead to:

2. A Third Lebanon War

Some Israeli analysts have suggested that the Iran-backed Lebanese organization could open a second front along Israel's northern border in support of a renewed Palestinian uprising. Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah said last year that the organization could fire as many as 3,000 rockets a day into Israel, adding that had an arsenal of as many as 80,000 rockets. Israeli retaliation, incurring civilian casualties, could again test the positions of Obama and McCain.

Hezbollah could also provoke a response on its own. Security sources said this week that Israel was girding for a high-profile Hezbollah terror attack in Israel or abroad in revenge for the murder of Hezbollah operations chief Imad Mughniyeh in a Damascus car bombing in February, perhaps a retaliation assassination.

3. Israelis acting to undermine a campaign

There is evidence that such an effortmay already be underway. A curiously worded and unsourced Army Radio report last week said that Joe Biden counseled unnamed Israeli officials to reconcile themselves to a nuclear Iran. The Biden campaign vehemently denied the report, calling it a "lie peddled by partisan opponents of Senators Obama and Biden."

4. An upsurge in settlement activity, especially in East Jerusalem

The fate of Jerusalem largely Arab eastern sector is one of the few points on which the Republican and Democratic platforms differ, and, put to the test, the differences could resonate with American Jewish voters as well.

The Republican Party is on record supporting an Israeli capital of Jerusalem as "an undivided city accessible to people of all faiths," while the Democratic platform holds that the final status of the city is to be settled between Israel and the Palestinians.

Republicans may also make wide use of Obama's June speech to AIPAC, in which he declared "Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided," only to have an advisor state the next day that Obama believes "Jerusalem is a final status issue, which means it has to be negotiated between the two parties" as part of "an agreement that they both can live with."

5. Unexpected progress in peace talks

If by some miracle the rickety Israeli and PA governments come to a semblance of an interim understanding, particularly on the flashpoint issues of Jerusalem and its holy sites, US Jewish voters may be galvanized and polarized into action, with Republicans tending toward hardline positions and Democrats cautiously backing some form of partition.

6. A pre-emptive Israeli strike on Iran

Perhaps the least likely scenario, in part because it is potentially the most perilous.

It is also seen as unlikely because of U.S. pressure on Israel, and the fragility of Israel's ruling coalition. Analysts have also said that if such an attack is undertaken, Israel would probably wait until after the election to unleash it. However, on Monday the Russian state-run company building Iran's first nuclear plant said that preparations for the reactor's launch had entered their final stage, and that by year's end the company will take steps that would make the launch of the Bushehr plant "irreversible" - a possible trigger for a pre-emptive strike.

Speculation over a possible Israeli attack was fueled in June by a massive exercise over the Mediterranean, in which Israel reportedly flew 100 F-15 and F-16 fighter jets 1,400 kilometers into Greek airspace in what media reports called a dress rehearsal for an airstrike against Iranian nuclear installations. One report said Israel was testing the advanced Russian S-300 anti-aircraft missile system, deployed on Crete and said to have been purchased by Iran, in order to learn to jam or evade it.

Following the reported exercise, ABC News quoted a senior U.S. defense official as saying there was an "increasing likelihood" that Israel might carry out such an attack, "a move that likely would prompt Iranian retaliation against, not just Israel, but against the United States as well." Analysts have said that among the possible results - short of World War III - were crude oil prices soaring to more than $300 a barrel, crippling world economies and stock markets.

7. A shocking but different Israeli operation against Iran

As an example, the hint by ex-Mossad agent and present cabinet minister Rafi Eitan, a kidnapper of Nazi mastermind Adolf Eichmann, that Israel might abduct Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in order to bring him before the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

Previous blogs:

Why the Jewish Vote matters - a guideHurricane MahmoudWhat really scares us about Barack ObamaTen Mideast traps for Barack Obama to avoidThe pleasure that Hezbollah takes in tortureExperiment: People's Peace Plan Number 1Fear of calling a terrorist a terrorist