By Nathan Guttman
This election cycle has officially ended the decades-long debate over whether Israel should be an American campaign issue. For better or worse, it is. We’ve grown used to hearing Israel mentioned in every televised debate and every stump speech, whether to a Jewish crowd in Florida or an evangelical audience in South Carolina. We’ve heard Republican candidates slamming President Obama for what they see as mistreatment of Israel, or, as Mitt Romney has said, “throwing Israel under the bus.”
It’s always great to be the center of attention. But in truth, Israel has nothing to gain from this debate. Republican claims and Democratic counter-claims both put Israel and its leaders in awkward positions. For instance, the entire Israeli leadership, including President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, is now starring in a seven-minute campaign video produced by the Obama campaign in which they rain praise on Obama. Meanwhile, across the aisle, GOP candidates fighting for the title of most pro-Israel candidate are becoming more pro-Israel than, well, Israel itself.
This has happened before. Think 1995. Yitzhak Rabin is Israel’s prime minister and the peace process is off to a promising start. An agreement on a partial pullout of Israeli forces from cities in the West Bank is going into effect, and both sides agree that thorny issues of refugees and Jerusalem should be left for a later stage.
Enter the U.S. Congress. Republican lawmakers introduce a bill calling for the relocation of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The bill is approved by an overwhelming bipartisan majority. Republicans feel it will be a great way to embarrass the Clinton administration, and Democrats understand they cannot oppose moving the American embassy to Israel’s capital.
The only party inconvenienced is Israel. Rabin, his aides later said, thought it was a mistake to draw attention to questions relating to the final status of Jerusalem at such an early stage of negotiations. He could hardly say so, though.
Recently Newt Gingrich has been upping the ante: On his first day in office, Gingrich promises, he will order the State Department to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. Michele Bachmann, before leaving the race, made the same promise and even said she had a donor lined up to pay for the move. Rick Santorum has also joined the chorus.
Israel itself, however, does not view moving the embassy as a priority. In the years since the Jerusalem Embassy Act was signed into American law, Israel has never appealed the presidential waiver signed every six months to ensure the move is not implemented. The issue, Israeli diplomats privately confirm, is not on the agenda and never has been. The charade endures because Israel cannot be seen as less committed to its capital than American presidential candidates.
The embassy is only one example. Gingrich has stated that the Palestinians are an “invented” people. Santorum likens the West Bank to the states of Texas and New Mexico, suggesting that Israel is not required to return any part of it to the Palestinians, just as the United States did not.
Such statements are not only outside the mainstream of American opinion, they are also far beyond the views of Israel’s right-wing coalition government. In his June 2009 speech at Bar Ilan University, Netanyahu endorsed the idea of a two-state solution. This would mean at least partial Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank (the same West Bank that Santorum argues is part of Israel) and the establishment alongside Israel of a Palestinian state (for the people Gingrich calls “invented”).
Much of the talk is just political posturing. But what if Gingrich or Santorum were actually to win the nomination and go on to take the White House? (Romney has been more cautious in his rhetoric.) Would the United States, Israel’s greatest ally, move to block an Israeli attempt to reach peace with Palestinians? Would it impose hurdles on the Jewish state as it seeks a two-state solution with its Palestinian neighbors? Could Israel afford to implement its two-state strategy without the backing of an American administration?
Things probably won’t get that far. After all, 17 years have passed since the Embassy Relocation Act, and the U.S. embassy is still in Tel Aviv. But words do have consequences. GOP candidates, even Romney, hardly mention a two-state solution or an Israeli–Palestinian peace process on the campaign trail. In a rare instance when the issue was raised during a January debate in Jacksonville, Florida, both Gingrich and Romney blamed lack of progress in peace talks on the Palestinians and argued that the Palestinian leadership does not wish to achieve peace.
At the same time, a team of Israeli officials was conducting its fifth round of talks with representatives of the Palestinian Authority in Jordan. These meetings did not yield any progress, but their existence made clear that Israel does not rule out the Palestinian leadership as a partner for negotiations.
Too bad a growing population of American voters—including many Jews, whose views on Israel could matter—will never hear about such realities. Campaign rhetoric is pushing the discussion to the far right, way beyond what Israel’s right-wing government has ever asked for—or really wants.
Nathan Guttman is the Washington bureau chief of The Forward.