Obama or Romney? Makes Little Difference for Israel

The conventions showed that differences between Democratic and Republican policies on Israel are a matter far more of style than substance and are unlikely to be a swing issue for U.S. Jewish voters.

The conventions are finally over.  We have listened to the speeches, seen the videos, and read the platforms.  And as American Jews committed to the Jewish state, we can now say with confidence:  It makes very little difference to Israel who wins this election.

There is a single American foreign policy on Israel, embraced by the two major parties, with some differences in style but very modest differences in substance.

The passionate partisans on both sides in the Jewish community will protest, of course.  They will try to turn our attention to the mostly inconsequential matters that have occupied them for two weeks:  The Democrats changed their platform on Jerusalem and then changed it again; and the Republicans changed theirs too.  (The chances that a President Romney will move the American embassy to Jerusalem:  Zero.) Jewish Republicans do not like the skewed vision of Jimmy Carter, while Democrats do not like the isolationism of Rand and Ron Paul.  A prominent rabbi gave the invocation for the Republicans; but another prominent rabbi gave the invocation for the Democrats.

Whatever interest such matters may hold, going into these conventions we expected a focus on the economy, and thats what we got.  Romney ran away from foreign policy, and Obama last night talked jobs and domestic policy—and what he had to say about Americas role in the world was more on troop withdrawals than anything else.

The real story is this:  After the interventionist activism brought on by 9/11, Americas foreign policy has returned to the more pragmatic model of the pre-George W. Bush years.  It has a strong moral tone, but is more modest and restrained, and in a difficult economic climate, focused more narrowly on American interests

President Obama has shaped this policy and done it well.  Whatever the economic failures, his foreign policy is popular with the American people and generally counted as a success.

And Governor Romney, if elected, will follow more or less the same model.  Yes, he offered some bluster, and gave a few obligatory nods to both the foreign policy hawks and the social conservatives; but the message of the Republican convention was that the business wing of the party is firmly in charge.  If Romney wanted a change in direction, he would have spoken about foreign affairs for more than three minutes.

While both parties are lowering their foreign policy sights, they are in the same place on Israel.  They both believe that America and the Jewish state have shared interests and values.  They are committed to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  (Efforts by pro-settler Republicans to change this were promptly quashed by the Romney camp.) They see Iran as a danger to the Middle East, to western interests, and to Israel, and announced their intention, without saying precisely how, of preventing Iran from going nuclear.  And they will cultivate Egypt as well as the other quasi-democracies created by the Arab spring, intending to give President Morsi room while steering him in a more moderate direction.

Still, for all the overlap, some speculation about divergences is inevitable.  I agree with Jeffrey Goldberg that, on balance, Obama is more likely than Romney to order an American-led attack on Iran next year if sanctions fail.  A newly re-elected President, confident of his foreign policy skills, comfortable with the use of force, and personally engaged on the Iranian issue, will be somewhat more inclined to act than an inexperienced Republican focused on the economy.  Obama will also be more inclined to push on the Israeli-Palestinian front—a good thing if done wisely and well.  Nonetheless, this is guesswork; it is the similarities that matter most.

Why then do we see the hysterical, vitriolic attacks by Jewish foreign policy hawks on Obama?  The simplest explanation is that many of these voices are ideological conservatives who despise Obama and want him replaced at all costs.  Facts aside, they want to make Israel a wedge issue that will pry away enough Jewish votes away from the Obama camp in Florida and Pennsylvania to deliver the election to Romney.  Another possibility is guilt over their role in bolstering Iran.  The war in Iraq, which they championed, deposed a terrible tyrant; but the cost in lives was enormous, a democratic result is still not assured, and Iran—with its traditional Iraqi enemies replaced by a pro-Iranian Iraqi government—emerged strengthened and triumphant.

And this too:  President Obama helped the cause of his critics by bungling his early handling of the settlement issue and, on more than one occasion, struggling to find the right language to speak to the people of Israel.

Nonetheless, efforts to invent a Republican policy on Israel and a Democratic policy on Israel are doomed to failure.  When Americans, Jews among them, are deciding for whom to vote, there are plenty of differences between President Obama and Governor Romney.  But the conventions have confirmed what we already know: Campaign rhetoric notwithstanding, foreign policy on Israel is one matter on which the candidates agree.   

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie served as President of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012. He is now a writer, lecturer, and teacher, and lives with his family in Westfield, New Jersey.

Obama at the AIPAC convention in Washington, 2011