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When it comes to Israel, neither Obama nor Romney is as good or bad as American Jews think.
It must be something in the water.
Once every four years, rational, right-thinking Americans get crazy. Election ads clearly hype up an already polarized electorate. And right about now, on the hot-button issues of the day — debt, deficit, who’s leading from behind in foreign policy and who’s not — many Americans seem to lose the capacity to think for themselves.
Instead of weighing issues deliberately, coolly and logically, they (we?) freak out. Indeed, to borrow a phrase from poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (though this is really not what he actually meant), Americans tend to willingly suspend their disbelief and accept uncritically the wackiest notions on domestic and foreign policy.
And the more Americans seem to care about an issue, the greater that wackiness becomes.
Nowhere is this more apparent than on the Israel issue, where very smart and politically engaged members of the American Jewish community persist in turning the election into a dramatic battle over which candidate is better for the Jews. Indeed, lost somewhere in this very foggy and politicized Bermuda Triangle, Jewish Republicans and Democrats trade dueling cosmic oy veys about what may happen to Israel if their guy isn’t elected or the other guy wins.
There’s nothing terribly remarkable or new about any of this. American Jews care deeply about Israel and are always worried about its security and concerned about the level of American support. And they’re constantly creating litmus tests to judge the candidates’ fealty to Israel. Whether there’s more hysteria this time around is hard to say. The dynamic in 1980 between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan and again in 1992 between George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton got pretty intense.
But sure enough, here we go again.
Too many Democrats want to pretend that Barack Obama is the most pro-Israel president in American history (see Joe Biden’s paean to Obama). And too many Republicans want to believe that Mitt Romney is Israel’s salvation and will rescue the Jews from the clutches of a sitting president they somehow think is a cross between Carter and Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
None of these morality plays, of course, bear the slightest resemblance to reality. There are indeed significant differences in the way Obama and Romney relate to the Israel issue. Regardless of who wins, however, it’s just not going to make much of a difference in the U.S.-Israel relationship. Here’s why.
Let’s start with the president. I’ve written before that Obama really isn’t Clinton (or George W. Bush either) when it comes to emotionally bonding with or intuiting Israeli fears and hopes. And his supporters — both Jewish and non-Jewish — should stop pretending that he is, or that he’s a member of their synagogue’s men’s club. This fantasy reached a truly ridiculous level when New York magazine ran a cover story portraying Obama as "the first Jewish president."
As perhaps America’s best emoter-in-chief, Clinton, broke the mold in relating to Israelis (and Palestinians too) on a gut level. After all, it was Clinton who wrote in his memoirs that he loved Yitzhak Rabin as he’d loved no man — a remarkable statement by any standard. I remember a high-ranking Israeli walking out of a meeting with Clinton wondering why he couldn’t be their prime minister. And after Clinton’s historic 1998 address to the meeting of the Palestine National Council in Gaza, a very frustrated Palestinian blurted out the very same sentiment.
Nor is Obama Harry Truman, as Biden keeps implying. Truman was frustrated and angry about Zionist pressure for statehood. But he was genuinely and spontaneously moved emotionally and morally by the tragedy of the Holocaust, the condition of refugees and the displaced, and the hopes for a Jewish state. And it showed.
Times were different then. And Obama is different now too. Part of it’s generational. He was born after the Israeli occupation and spent most of his time not in the political world, where being good on Israel is as natural as breathing, but in a university environment where Israel is viewed as only one side of a coin, with the Palestinians on the other.
The president wasn’t raised on the Paul Newman Exodus movie trope in which the Israelis were the brave cowboys and the Arabs were the hostile Indians. Indeed, his penchant for nuance, complexity, and detachment drives him to avoid seeing matters in black and white. These skills might serve him well if he ever got a chance to get to real negotiations. But that’s the point: His inability to connect emotionally as Clinton and Bush did may make it harder for him to get there in the first place.
No matter how hard his advocates keep trying to hype Obama’s pro-Israel accomplishments (security assistance, defending Israel at the United Nations), it just doesn’t seem to resonate. I had a similar experience during the Bush 41 administration, when I was trying to persuade a Jewish audience in Detroit of all the good the president had done for Israel — taking care of Saddam Hussein, absorbing Russian Jews, and so on. After laying out my list, an elderly guy in the back raised his hand and asked, "If things are so great, why do I feel so bad?"
That same lack of a connection is mirrored at the very top today, where Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have struggled without finding much common ground. Despite differences on settlements and the peace process, Clinton managed to actually reach two agreements with Bibi. Likewise, Bush 43 managed a relationship with an even tougher Ariel Sharon, partly because he was just as prepared almost instinctively to give the Israelis the benefit of the doubt more times than not.
Obama isn’t. Neither the Iranian nuclear issue nor the peace process seems to have yet created any real foundation for personal trust or chemistry. And it has led — even four years in — to perhaps the most troubled ties between an Israeli prime minister and an American president. Netanyahu bears his fair share of the responsibility. Obama doesn’t believe Bibi is prepared to accommodate American interests, and Bibi thinks Obama is bloodless when it comes to understanding Israel’s own needs.
Obama clearly doesn’t like Netanyahu’s bravado or what he believes is his callous disregard for American interests. In this regard, Obama probably fits somewhere between Carter and Bush 41 when it comes to how frustrated they were with the Israelis.
But get a grip, people: Obama is not an enemy of the state of Israel. Biden is right to claim that security cooperation and the institutionalized components of the U.S.-Israel relationship are thriving. And while this piece of the relationship has a certain automaticity to it and has improved under every American president since Richard Nixon, Obama is not going to "throw Israel under the bus" and pursue an approach that jeopardizes Israel’s security. No American president ever would or could.
It’s equally unreal and fantastical for Jewish Republicans to see Romney as the savior of Israel or somehow as the guy who has the will and skill to solve Israel’s tough challenges or to somehow make them easier to manage. Right now, a Romney presidency is only a counterfactual exercise. But there’s very little on the face of it that would suggest that a President Romney would have any more luck than his predecessors in fixing these critical issues.
There’s no doubt that the personal relationship between these two leaders will improve. And that’s important. But there’s no sense at all that Romney has any better ideas on Iran or certainly the peace process than Obama. Greenlighting an Israeli attack on Iran and ignoring the peace process may not be the best course for Israel or America. Indeed, my own view is that on the nuclear issue, there will be little difference between the actual policies both would adopt and that in the end there will be more cooperation with the Israelis on Iran not less — largely because Washington and Jerusalem will need one another to see this through without a disaster.
On the Palestinian issue, based on their track records, I have just as little confidence in Obama’s activist approach as I do in Romney’s professed policy of under-engagement. In any event, the road to an Israeli-Palestinian agreement is littered with challenges that will be tough to overcome regardless of who’s elected. On the security side, both will continue to support maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge.
As for American Jews, I know they worry for a living. The history of the Jewish people impels them to do so. But when it comes to the health of the U.S.-Israel relationship, they ought to take a deep breath and relax.
The key indicator in choosing the next president shouldn’t be the U.S.-Israel relationship. That’s too big to fail — shared values, a strong pro-Israel community, and the behavior of the Arabs and Iran will all sustain it. Indeed, there’s little chance of a divorce here. And like a committed marriage, it will endure across moments of happiness and tension, as well as its fair share of ups and downs. In fact, should Romney become president and Netanyahu remain in power, I’d bet that within a year they’ll be annoying each other too.
Instead, the key question American Jews need to ask themselves isn’t whether Romney or Obama is good for the Jews, but who’s better for America. Indeed, particularly when it comes to domestic policy, where there are huge differences, American Jews ought to be far more focused on which of these guys would be better for their own country and less concerned about their policies toward somebody else’s.