Monday, November 5, 2012

Barack Obama and Israel's Perilous Times

      “This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come.”

                               -- 2 Timothy 3:1

In the 2008 Presidential election, 78% of American Jews cast their vote for Barack Obama.  This should have surprised no one.   For the past 80 years, Jews have overwhelmingly backed the Democratic candidate for President. (Reagan and Eisenhower were the only Republicans to win more than 35% of the Jewish vote).

But for Jewish Republicans, this is an agonizing source of frustration. 

They will tell you that their liberal brethren are stuck in a time warp and are responding not to present-day reality, but to the feel-good righteous causes of the past, such as FDR’s New Deal and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.  Yes, they say, Jews were once outsiders who struggled to make inroads against the bigotry of a conservative establishment. But it’s 2012 now.  Time to get with the program.  Jewish Republicans also realize that a major reason Jews vote Democrat is because of social issues.  When it comes to women’s rights, abortion rights, same-sex marriage etc., Jews (with the exception of the religious orthodox) remain overwhelmingly liberal.  Jewish Republicans tend to downplay the influence of social conservatives within the Republican Party.  “Never mind the crazy Michele Bachmann types” they insist, “Republicans aren’t really going to outlaw abortion or teach creationism in schools, that’s just a bit of pandering.  Now never mind that - let’s talk instead about taxes…”  Finally, there’s the question of Israel.   According to many Jewish Republicans, Jews who support the Democratic Party – and support Barack Obama – are the kind of Jews who don’t care about Israel.  

Do they really believe that?  Or is it a political scare tactic? Either way, this idea that Obama is bad news for Israel is a focal point in the latest attempt to convert Jews to the GOP.  Of course most American Jews do care deeply about Israel.  And while I suspect that very few are single-issue voters, it's probably fair to say that the existence and security of Israel is something that resonates with just about anyone who identifies as a Jew – whether they are secular or religious, liberal or conservative.  It's a complex relationship, but it's real. 

The latest attempt to scare Jewish voters came in the form of a propaganda video produced by the Republican Jewish Coalition, a lobbying group funded by casino magnate and Romney backer, Sheldon Adelson.   The video is a 9 minute “mini-documentary” entitled “Perilous Times.” (Is the title a coincidence?  “Perilous Times,” comes from Paul’s second Epistle to Timothy and refers to the End of Days.  Google the words "Perilous Times" and you’ll see that the phrase has special meaning to right-wing Christian evangelicals – the very ones who claim to support Israel while praying for the cleansing fire of Armageddon).

The video is a slickly produced.  Over a bed of foreboding background music, it features comments by various Israeli political activists (mostly conservatives and members of Netanyahu’s Likud party) who voice their distrust of Obama.  The video also selects sound-bites of criticism from pro-Israel Democrats like Charles Schumer and Ed Koch (who nevertheless support Obama).  Significantly, it contains none of the hysterical conspiracy ranting about Jeremiah Wright, Kenya or birth certificates. In that sense it is a great improvement over the standard anti-Obama propaganda.  But the video is also short on facts and is full of innuendo and half-truth. Consider:

  •  The video criticizes Obama for reaching out to the Arab world (as if this is somehow damaging to Israel).  After mentioning Obama’s celebrated visit to Egypt, it notes, by way of comparison, that he “declined to set foot in Israel.”  The insinuation is obvious.  And yet no Republican President has ever visited Israel during his first term.  Ronald Reagan never visited Israel ever.

  • The video then suggests that Obama has departed from the policies of prior U.S. administrations and wants to force Israel to adopt a peace settlement with the Palestinians based on pre-1967 borders.  But of course that is not what Obama said.  He said that the starting point for negotiations should be “based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps.”  Since when does this represent a new U.S. policy toward Israel?   Abe Foxman of the ADL doesn't think it does. “I don’t see this as the president throwing Israel under the bus,” Foxman said of Obama’s statement. “He’s saying with `swaps.’ It’s not 1967 borders in the abstract. It’s not an edict. It’s a recommendation of a structure for negotiations.”  As, Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic explainedThis has been the basic idea for at least 12 years. This is what Bill Clinton, Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat were talking about at Camp David, and later, at Taba. This is is what George W. Bush was talking about with Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert. So what's the huge deal here? Is there any non-delusional Israeli who doesn't think that the 1967 border won't serve as the rough outline of the new Palestinian state?"

  • As further “evidence” of Obama’s disregard of Israel, the video charges Obama with backpedaling on recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.  But of course Obama’s position is no different from every single U.S. administration which has kept its embassy in Tel-Aviv while giving qualified lip service to Jerusalem as capital, always adding that the final status of Jerusalem must be arrived at through negotiation. Yes, it’s a dance. But it’s the same dance that every U.S. President, from Harry Truman to George W. Bush, has performed.

  • Curiously, the video says very little about Iran.  It simply asks the viewer to “think about whether a nuclear Iran can be tolerated”  The implication is that a nuclear Iran would be tolerated by Obama.  Yet even AIPAC’s Director Howard Kohrs while asking for still stronger measures, said: "President Obama and his administration are to be commended.  They have - more than any other administration, more than any other country - brought unprecedented pressure to bear on Tehran through the use of biting economic sanctions."
Here’s are some facts, the video neglects to mention:
  • Under the Obama administration, the U.S. has provided Israel with unprecedented levels of military aid.
  • Under Obama, the U.S. voted with Israel at the United Nations 100% of the time and vetoed a Security Council resolution that sought to condemn Israeli settlements.  (The prior administration, under Bush, did not).
  • According to the pro-Israel Dennis Ross, a former Clinton official and State Department insider who has some experience with U.S.- Israel relations, Obama’s strong support for Israel is “without precedent."
  • According to the Ehud Barak, Israel’s Defense Minister, when it comes to Israel's security, the Obama administration is doing "more than anything I can remember in the past." Any number of Israeli generals and intelligence officials, including Meir Dagan, the former Mossad Director, have said  virtually the same thing.
Perhaps most telling of all, is that the video, produced by Romney’s Republican supporters, fails to offer a single point of difference in favor of Romney.  Romney talks tough when it comes to Iran.  He speaks of "Red Lines" the way that Netanyahu does but considering that Netanyahu's sabre-rattling approach is rejected by many high ranking Israeli intelligence officials, that may not exactly be a point in his favor.  

Some liberal Jews think it’s the Jewish Republicans who are deluding themselves.  According to Jay Michaelson, who writes for the Jewish Daily Forward,  the Republican Party has been hijacked by the Christian Right who use the Jewish Romney supporters to advance their own extreme theocratic agenda.  Michaelson may be exaggerating the influence of the Christian Right (or maybe not) but he’s not wrong in calling out the cynical way the subject of Israel is exploited by Romney’s backers:

"Here’s the challenge: Find me one hair of difference between the Obama administration’s policy on Israel and any of the last Republican administrations’. This has been the most pro-Israel four years in American history: Funding the Iron Dome defense system, not opposing Israel’s settlement policy (unlike Bush I), taking a hard line on Iran (unlike Reagan, who condemned Israel’s bombing of the Iraqi nuclear site). Don’t trust me — trust Israel’s generals, who said the same thing."

I've yet to hear a convincing response to this challenge.

Instead they parse through portions of various statements and speeches looking for some new phrasing with which they can take offense.  In the end, the whole case typically comes down to: “Well, Obama was rude to snub Netanyahu.”  About half of the “Perilous Times” video is devoted to that one complaint.  Considering how serious the issue of Israeli security really is, the video makes a remarkably unserious case.  I don't blame any Israeli or American Jew for skepticism, for thinking that U.S. Presidents will only "support" Israel to the degree that it's politically expedient or for arguing about what kind of support is meaningful and which candidate will provide more support given the dangers of the Middle East. But one can hope that this debate could take place with real honesty and without such disappointing pandering to fear.

Why does all of this talk about the "Jewish vote" even matter?   Jews represent less than 2% of the U.S. population.  Aren't there more important issues and more important demographics?

Probably so.  But American Jews do vote and in Florida, they represent nearly 4% of the population. Florida looks like a dead heat and Romney has to win there to prevail.  Republicans surely know that they're not going to make significant progress in securing Jewish voters.  But modest inroads in Florida might be all they need.  If they can move the needle just enough to make a difference with Florida voters, the "Perilous Times" tactic just might pay off. 


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