Nine months before U.S. voters go to the polls, Israelis are already asking who will be better for Israel – Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic candidate, or Donald Trump, or some other possible Republican nominee. This is understandable: the United States is Israel’s most important bilateral partner and the relationship between the two countries goes to the heart of Israel’s security, and, most likely, its survival. However, Israelis looking to party labels rather than the candidate’s credentials are on shaky ground.
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History has taught us that party affiliation is an unreliable talisman. It was Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican president, who in 1957 “ordered” the IDF to withdraw from the Sinai (not popularly received in Israel), and it was Lyndon Johnson, a Democratic president, who sat on his hands during the Six-Day War when Israel’s survival hung in the balance.
By contrast, Republican Richard Nixon’s airlift during the dark hours of the October Yom Kippur War in 1973 arguably saved Israel from defeat, though it did not keep Nixon from harboring hateful private attitudes toward Jews. The Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty was brokered by Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, not remembered fondly by most Israelis, and yet the treaty endures as the lodestar of Israeli security. In the 1980s a Republican, Ronald Reagan, announced with great fanfare the ‘Reagan Peace Plan’ that Prime Minister Menachem Begin immediately rejected. The Jordanian peace treaty was signed in 1994 during the tenure of Bill Clinton, arguably the most popular American president among Israelis since the state’s founding.
Opposition to the expansion of Israeli settlements crosses U.S. party boundaries. From Nixon to the present, eight American presidents (five Republicans and three Democrats) have criticized Israel’s settlement activities in East Jerusalem and the territories. They used different words, but the message was essentially the same (“Stop!”). Right or wrong, the Israeli electorate is less unanimous in its condemnation of settlements- as evidenced by the last national elections which brought a pro-settlement right-wing government to power.
The lesson of this short historical survey is that the political party behind a U.S. president does not predetermine his relationship with Israel. Israelis and the Israeli government need to forget about political labels. They should instead think clearly and dispassionately about what is essential for Israel in its relationship with the United States and just as clearly what is not.
Separating the critical from the merely polemical is essential. For example, the familiar political trope of moving the U.S Embassy to Jerusalem should be seen for what it is: a punchline to soothe the pro-Israel base in the United States. Most American candidates say it, but once elected none has done it. In the same category is what an American president says about Israel’s prime ministers, past or current. Personal relationships matter far less than enduring interests.
What is then essential? Two foundational pillars of the bilateral relationship: the U.S. commitment to maintain Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge and its commitment to prevent nuclear proliferation in the Middle East. In the honorable mention column (nice but not essential) is protecting Israel in international fora and U.S. efforts to combat the so-called BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement directed against goods made in the “occupied territories,” but in reality part of a larger effort to delegitimize Israel.
If an Israeli teacher gave grades to American presidents, past and present, based on strengthening the two essential pillars of the bilateral relationship, the likely winner would be (surprise to many) Barack Obama who has arguably done more to enhance Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge than any of his predecessors (David’s Sling, Iron Dome, Arrow, bunker buster bombs, long-range radar that detects missiles 1500 miles away, real time intelligence, the F-35 and more).
It is time for more Israelis to acknowledge, as did General Gadi Eisenkot, Chief of the General Staff, IDF, in a speech earlier this year, that the two existential threats Israel faced last year, Iran’s nuclear missiles and Syria’s chemical weapons, have been eliminated for the intermediate term. This happened on President Obama’s watch, despite the fact that the personal relationship between Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu is probably the worst ever between an American president and an Israeli prime minister.
Instead of choosing sides in the U.S. presidential election, as did the Netanyahu government in 2012, Israelis should take comfort in the high likelihood that the next president of the United States will look on Israel as a close ally sharing a common destiny with the United States. He or she will maintain Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge and act to prevent nuclear proliferation in the Middle East. Absent some action by Israel that falls off the edge, the United States will largely continue its support of Israel in diplomatic fora and around the world. Israelis can also expect that the next president will oppose the expansion of settlements (as has every American administration, Republican or Democrat, for the past 45 years); will call for the resumption of the Israeli-Palestinian talks and support a two-state solution.
American support for Israel on both sides of the political aisle is rock solid and likely to remain so, regardless of which party holds the White House. There will be dissident voices on campuses calling for an end to the occupation. They will be joined by other voices heralding liberation for the Palestinians and the end of injustice on all five continents, but this is not do or die stuff. To enhance and protect Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge, the two countries need to renew their Memorandum of Understanding on Security Assistance that expires next year. The Obama Administration has announced its willingness to close the deal now. Israel should seize the moment, not wait for a Republican “righty” in the hope of getting a better result from the next administration.
Support for Israel in the United States is and needs to remain bipartisan. Israelis should trust the Americans to get this one right: whoever is elected will undoubtedly support the two essential pillars of the bilateral relationship. And the government of Israel should stay out of the American political fracas, and not repeat the mistake it made in 2012 with its support for Romney, then running against an incumbent president. They can have their preferences, their personal connections and even their prayers, but they should keep them to themselves for the duration of the campaign.
Alfred H. Moses was Special Counsel to the U.S. President (1980), U.S. ambassador to Romania 1994-97; Special Presidential Envoy for the Cyprus Conflict (1999-2001), President of The American Jewish Committee 1991-94, and presently serves as chair of UN Watch in Geneva.