- By David RothkopfDavid Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017.
There is an old joke that states a genius is an average student with a Jewish mother. And that may explain in part why Sarah Palin has just announced she is planning to visit Israel. Perhaps just what the average student turned presidential candidate needs is the love and protection of a bunch of Jewish Mama Grizzlies.
Of course, Palin’s announcement … and the similar announcement by Mike Huckabee … is evidence of something else. It is a clear sign that the Republican right thinks Barack Obama is vulnerable on Israel policy. In the same way that you already see potential Republican presidential candidates combing over the wreckage of Obama’s past bastion of support on Wall Street, this gravitation to the Holy Land is less spiritual and more calculatedly opportunistic.
Not only have the administration’s efforts to restart the dialogue between Israel and the Palestinians been fitful and recently, embarrassingly confused, but behind the scenes Israelis are yearning for the good old days of Bush and the neocons. Or of Clinton and Rabin. Or of Bush, Reagan, Carter, Nixon, or, in fact, virtually anyone else. The reasons for these feelings are manifold. But even those who wanted to give Obama the benefit of the doubt are themselves now doubters.
There is an irony in this, of course. Because any clear-eyed assessment of what has gone wrong on the Israeli-Palestinian front demands the conclusion that Obama is not the problem and that changing U.S. leaders is hardly the answer. The needed political changes are not only much closer to home for the Israelis (and the Palestinians) but they are less changes about people and more about attitudes and circumstances.
Israel’s biological clock is ticking. Demography is changing the country and its political landscape profoundly. The Israeli Palestinian population growing in ways that will, in a comparative blinking of an eye, make it the country’s majority population. There has also been a major shift in the nature of Israel’s Jewish population, now more diverse and divided than at any time in the country’s history. Both factors make progress and compromise difficult.
Further, global public opinion is arguably more on the side of the Palestinians right now than ever before. As just the latest sign of this, Brazil last week officially recognized Palestinian sovereignty.
The United States is suffering a bad case of Middle East fatigue. The Europeans never really wanted in. And all of a sudden the Chinese are playing a decisive role in the region thanks to their leverage as a growth market and their willingness to deal with Iran and others among Israel’s enemies. Ultimately — watch this space — Chinese unwillingness to engage in a meaningful way on the Iranian nuclear issue will be a critical contributor to Iran gaining, as it almost certainly will, nuclear weapons.
In short, Israel’s position is weakening. Netanyahu is only exacerbating the problem and the Palestinians are happy to dither in the interim because they know which way the wind is blowing.
Which brings us back to Palin, Huckabee and company. Politically, their math adds up. Barring an incredibly unlikely positive development on the negotiations front, Obama is likely to be seen as lukewarm on Israel at best, his initiatives ineffective and consequently he will be open to criticism that he has not been an effective friend. (Let’s defer to a different time the arguments about whether or not he has effectively advanced U.S. national interests — that’s not what I’m talking about here. This is not even about just a "Jewish vote" were such a thing to exist or be materially important. Just to be clear the much bigger "pro-Israel" vote they’re after is from the religious right.) No, on a broader level, it’s about weaving a narrative for right wing and independent America that Obama has backed off from or undercut traditional U.S. positions associated with past U.S. strength.
Agree or not regarding the implications for U.S. policy in the region, these predictable moves by Palin and Huckabee provide important insights into how the battle of 2012 will be waged and what kind of picture of the president his opponents will paint.
For the Israelis however, don’t expect that even with a biblical name, biblical values and reflexively pro-Israel views that Sarah Palin is the answer. This is not just because of the debates that will surely ensue when Palin argues that life begins at conception and the Jewish Mama Grizzlies counter that it only begins when your child graduates from medical school. It’s also because while she may be able to field dress a caribou, she can’t undo the transformative history of the past 20 years. (To be honest, it seems fairly unlikely she is even aware of it.) And that, regardless of who is the president of the United States, is what will lead to the coming crisis for Israel that will almost certainly be the greatest of its existence.
And while stale the old Jewish jokes are running through my mind (and this post), that of course reminds me of the famous Jewish telegram which reads: "Begin worrying. Details to follow."