American Jews: Ignore Dangerous Republican Games on Israel

Both parties pander to Jewish donors and Jewish voters, attacking the Israel bona fides of the other side. But the Republicans have taken the campaign theatrics to new and irresponsible extremes.

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New Jersey Governor Chris Christie speaks at a Republican Jewish Coalition forum at the Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington December 3, 2015.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie speaks at a Republican Jewish Coalition forum at the Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington December 3, 2015. Credit: REUTERS/James Lawler Duggan

When it comes to Israel, it makes no real difference who is elected President of the United States next year.

Neither Jewish Republicans nor Jewish Democrats want to hear this, of course.  The presidential election is less than a year away.  Each side is gearing up its election machinery and making emphatic and often extravagant claims about how their party, and their party alone, is the best friend that the Jewish state has ever had.    

But it’s mostly nonsense, and Jewish Republicans and Democrats alike know that it’s nonsense. 

There is a single American policy on Israel, embraced by both parties. It is a policy rooted in the values that America and Israel share and in a sober calculation of American interests in the Middle East and in the world.  This shared vision came into being more than 30 years ago, and it will continue no matter who is elected president next November. 

This is not to say that on their Israel-related policies, the parties have positions that are identical in every respect.  Nonetheless, over the last three decades Democrats and Republicans have supported an approach to peace built around a two-state solution, security guarantees for Israel, a rejection of Palestinian demands for refugee return, a permanent end to the conflict, and an Israeli settlement policy that is limited and consistent with a two-state goal. Obviously, the president’s personality and foreign policy instincts have an impact as well.  But both parties have been basically on the same page since the Reagan presidency.

This simple truth frequently gets forgotten during the election season, when political pandering is the name of the game. Both parties pander to Jewish donors and Jewish voters, touting their own Israel credentials while attacking the Israel bona fides of the other side. This is not a terrible thing. In a system built on emotional appeals and often shameless lies to every conceivable interest and ethnic group, why should the pro-Israel sentiments of American Jews not be part of the game?

Still, American Jews need to remain grounded in reality. And while Democrats have issues of their own, the immediate danger is from the Republican side. The Republicans are now in the process of making wild promises they will never keep and presenting the Democrats as traitorous on Israel and indifferent to her very existence.  This is dangerous, irresponsible, and very bad for the Jewish state.  If the Republican message is that when it comes to Israel, we Republicans are saviors and the Democrats are Satan—an absurd claim by any standard—then the reality of a sensible, centrist, and bipartisan American policy on Israel, which used to be the goal of both sides, is obscured rather than strengthened. 

To see how this is playing out, a good place to begin is the December issue of Commentary Magazine.  It has a two-part cover article on the political parties and Israel, with the thesis that the GOP are the good guys and the Democrats are the bad guys.  The first part, written by Tevi Troy, argues that George W. Bush represents what the Republicans have become—unabashed supporters and lovers of Israel.  And then, almost as an aside, Troy acknowledges that, well, Bush also pushed for a negotiated settlement between Israelis and Palestinians. That is, Bush did what Barack Obama did—minus, in Troy’s words, the “vitriol” of Obama.

But Bush’s efforts to move toward peace are precisely the point. Bush, like Obama, backed a two-state solution. Like Obama, he had strong views on limiting Israeli settlements—and in fact, he actually reached an agreement with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on how that was to be done. While Bush and Sharon had chemistry and Obama and Netanyahu do not, the policy of the United States on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations does not depend on personal chemistry.   

Jonathan Tobin demonizes the Democrats by describing a take-over of the party by liberals concerned about the Palestinian territories. In his telling, a growing number of these liberals say that the rationale for Israel’s existence depends on “giving up this land no matter the consequences for its security.” But Tobin provides no names of these liberals for the very simple reason that they do not exist. There is not a single Democrat of any standing, liberal or otherwise, who believes that Palestinian land must be returned “no matter the consequences.” The Obama administration believes in two states, but like its Republican predecessors, has endlessly repeated its commitment to assuring Israel’s security as part of a final agreement.

For Tobin, and for other Republicans as well, the Iran deal is ultimate proof that the Republicans are pro-Israel while the Democrats are not. But here again, the Republican protests are mostly theater and charade, and the differences are mostly smoke and mirrors.  The deal was far from perfect, but it served American interests while offering Israel the protections it required.  During the congressional debate, the Republicans delighted in using the plan as a club with which to attack the President, and loudly promised a “roll back.” But after the agreement was approved, they promptly set the subject aside, and it disappeared almost completely from the Republican debates and agenda.  The Republican base has other things on its mind.

Now that Republican candidates are appealing for support to the Republican Jewish Coalition, they have returned to the theme of “shredding” the nuclear deal. But no one outside of the RJC is listening or taking such claims seriously. And after the RJC meetings, the critique of the deal will return to the shelf.  There are issues related to the Iran agreement that could be fruitfully discussed by the candidates, such as how best to assure compliance with the agreement’s terms. But the politics of Republican game-playing and pretend radicalism have made that impossible. We will need to rely on the good sense of our next President to follow through. 

But I am not too worried.  Because again:  Despite the alarmist rhetoric from the Republican side, America’s policy on Israel will continue on its current course after the 2016 election, no matter who wins. If there are changes of any sort, they will be on the margins, and the broad contours of that policy will remain the same. America will continue to be committed to the principles that have guided her Presidents, Democrats and Republicans, for more than a generation. 

Eric H. Yoffie, a rabbi, writer and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey, is a former president of the Union for Reform Judaism.