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Making Israel A Wedge Issue


Last week at the UN, President Obama did something he had never done before. He discussed Israel and the Palestinians without once attacking Israel. He didn’t blame Israel for the absence of peace.

 

True, Obama did not blame the Palestinians for refusing to negotiate with Israel. He did not attack Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas for making a unity deal with Hamas. He did not condemn the Palestinians as anti-Semites in light of their demand that a Palestinian state be ethnically cleansed of Jews, or for their refusal to recognize Israel’s right to exist.

 

But for the first time in his presidency, last week at the UN Obama spoke to a world audience and drew a moral equivalence between an Israel that seeks peace and the Palestinians who seek Israel’s destruction. Given his record, this is a step forward.

 

What caused the change?

 

Quite simply, the Republican victory in New York’s 9th Congressional District’s special election earlier this month caused the change. Obama’s UN speech reflected his concern that he is losing American Jewish support.

 

Cong. Bob Turner’s election, like that of other Republican politicians since 2009 in traditionally Democratic constituencies, owes in large part to Obama’s poor economic record. But what made the NY-9 election unique was the major role Obama’s hostile policies toward Israel played in the race. With its high percentage of Jewish voters, the district served as a bellwether for Obama’s reelection prospects among Jews as well as a litmus test for the Democratic Party’s ability to continue to view Jews as automatic Democratic voters and generous Democratic campaign donors.

 

Obama’s UN speech, like the administration’s leaked report that it has sold Israel bunker buster bombs, signal that the White House views the Jewish vote as in play for 2012. And it is trying to woo Jewish voters and donors back into the Democratic fold.

 

The deterioration of Jewish support for the Democrats has been a long time in coming. Traditional Democratic support for Israel began eroding with the nomination of George McGovern as the party’s presidential candidate in 1972. Before Obama, Jimmy Carter was the most hostile president Israel ever experienced.

 

In the 1990s, Bill Clinton was widely regarded as pro-Israel. Yet during Clinton’s eight years in office, Yasir Arafat was the most frequent foreign guest at the White House. Clinton’s legacy was the Palestinian terror war that broke out in his last months in office.

 

By the end of Clinton’s second term, Republicans had clearly surpassed Democrats in their support for Israel. In the face of this shift, Democratic leaders insisted that Republicans must not make Israel a “wedge issue.” Since Israel enjoys support from both parties, the Democrats argued, it would harm Israel if Republicans made their outspoken and nearly unanimous support for Israel an electoral issue.

 

American Jewish leaders were happy to oblige the Democrats. Since most of them and most of their organizations’ members are Democrats, American Jewish groups from AIPAC to the New York Jewish Federation willingly pretended the Democratic Party’s growing support for the Palestinians against Israel meant nothing. And the few voices pointing out the increasingly obvious partisan divide were attacked for “politicizing” Israel.

 

In the two and a half years since Obama entered office, as the president’s hostility toward Israel became increasingly obvious, demands by Democratic leaders that the Republicans keep mum on the subject of Israel and the Democrats became more and more shrill. They reached their climax during Prime Minister Netanyahu’s dramatic visit to Washington in May.

 

While Netanyahu was en route to the U.S., Obama blindsided him by endorsing the Palestinian demand that all future peace talks be based on Israeli withdrawal to the 1949 armistice lines. Since those lines would render Israel indefensible, Netanyahu was compelled to confront Obama on the issue during a photo opportunity at the White House the following day.

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