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Where The Republicans And The President Differ

With many analysts suggesting that the 2012 presidential election could turn on Jewish votes in various key states, especially Florida, both President Obama and the Republicans running for their party’s nomination (with the exception of Ron Paul) are making efforts to demonstrate their bona fides regarding Israel.

It is a fascinating thing to watch, not only because it opens a window on the workings of the political process but also because, in this instance, it has revealed an unprecedented political divide on Israel.

Newt Gingrich created a stir recently with his comment that there is a need for truth in American foreign policy and the truth is the Palestinians are an “invented people” and that fact has to inform what kinds of compromises and concessions Israel would be expected to make in seeking agreement with the Palestinians.

Mitt Romney, with the support of Rick Santorum and, to some extent, Michele Bachmann, agreed with Mr. Gingrich on substance but also said that on such matters public positions should not be taken unless the Israeli prime minister gives a green light.

For their parts, President Obama – who has taken much criticism for his treatment of Mr. Netanyahu and for his opposition to settlement building and embrace of the 1967 lines as a framework for negotiations – and his surrogates seem never to miss an opportunity to tout Mr. Obama’s undeniable support for Israel’s security. But the differences are fundamental and there really will be a choice in 2012.

Last week, President Obama, with some justification, told an audience of Reform Jews, “I am proud to say that no U.S. administration has done more in support of Israel’s security than ours. None. Don’t let anyone else tell you otherwise. It is a fact…. We’re going to keep standing with our Israeli friends and allies just as we’ve been doing when they needed us most…. I have not wavered and will not waver. The special bonds between our nations are ones that Americans hold dear…. They’re bonds that transcend partisan politics – or at least they should.”

Also last week, in a speech to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice denounced the treatment Israel regularly receives at the UN. She said the treatment was “obsessive, ugly, bad for the United Nations and bad for peace.” She said the Obama administration was committed to opposing all efforts to “chip away at Israel’s legitimacy” and to Israel’s peace and security, which she said was an “essential truth that will never change.”

And the truth is the Obama administration has stood up for Israel at the UN (even if Ms. Rice’s rhetoric there sometimes suggests she is uncomfortable supporting Israel on certain issues).

There’s more: On Tuesday came word that the U.S. and Israel are scheduled to hold the largest-ever joint missile defense exercise. The drill will involve the deployment of several thousand American soldiers in Israel and the establishment of U.S. command posts in Israel with the ultimate goal of establishing joint task forces in the event of a future large-scale conflict in the Middle East. Plans are also under way to bring U.S. anti-missile systems to Israel in anticipation of their working in conjunction with Israel’s missile defense systems.

Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta spoke recently of the unprecedented level of military cooperation and assistance between Israel and the U.S. under President Obama. He said Israel could count on “three enduring pillars of U.S. policy” to preserve its safety and prosperity during a period of extraordinary turmoil in the Middle East. The pillars included the U.S. commitment to Israel’s security, a broader commitment to stability in the region, and a determination to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

“These are not merely rhetorical reassurances. These are firm principles that are backed up by tangible action, the commitment of resources and demonstrable resolve,” he said.

And yet there has also been President Obama’s aforementioned embrace of the Palestinians’ insistence on the 1967 lines as a framework for negotiations, his opposition to settlement construction and his public disdain for Prime Minister Netanyahu. All of which has drawn broad criticism in the Jewish community.

The challenge lies in attempting to reconcile the administration’s strong support for Israel’s military needs with its tendency to put the onus on Israel for lack of progress in negotiations and its seeming eagerness to publicly chastise Israeli leaders at the proverbial drop of a hat.

In a February 2008 speech to some 100 Jewish leaders in Cleveland, then-candidate Obama, noting the criticism he was taking for his Middle East views, said:

I think there is a strain within the pro-Israel community that says unless you adopt an unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel that you are anti Israel, and that cannot be the measure of our friendship with Israel. If we cannot have an honest dialogue about how we achieve these goals, then we are not going to make progress.

Significantly, the word most often used by the president and other administration officials is “security.” The commitment to Israel is defined in terms of Israeli security. Yet, while Prime Minister Netanyahu is obviously interested in security, his frame of reference, and to a growing extent that of the national Republican Party, is something that goes beyond a mere verbal or cosmetic form of security, which can mean living in a contrived area surrounded by soldiers. Genuine security, of course, means naturally defensible borders.

The UN resolution ending the 1967 Six-Day War called for scrapping the 1948 Partition lines and the 1949 Armistice lines – they had led to two wars – and new, secure and defensible borders for Israel were envisioned. Significantly, while the resolution spoke in vague terms of an eventual Israeli withdrawal from some of the territory it had just won, there was no mention of any “swaps of land” by Israel. And since Israel had won those territories in a defensive war with Egypt, Syria and Jordan, there certainly was no thought of any of the land being relinquished to the Palestinians.

In principle, this seems to be the wedge issue between President Obama and the Republicans. The latter seem to be comfortable with the notion of an Israel without contrived borders and appear to accept Israel’s retaining the population centers it has built up.

The long list of legitimate criticisms of the president over his Mideast policy suggests that some concern about his post-election Middle East plans is in order. Despite his undeniable support of Israel’s military needs, it’s his administration’s problematic conception of what constitutes true security for Israel that will continue to bedevil him with significant numbers of Jewish voters.

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