Candidates and Israel: too good to be effective?

Candidates and Israel: too good to be effective?

Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.

If one did not know better, it might appear the key question being debated by the Republican candidates in the run-up to the Jan. 3 Iowa caucus is who can best appeal to that decisive American voting bloc — the Jews. In an embarrassing show of pandering, the various Republican aspirants (except for a disinvited Ron Paul) all appeared before the Republican Jewish Coalition. From their transparent pledges to move the United States embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem to their commitment to elevated sanctions on Iran to their vacillating commitment to a two-state solution, the various candidates made it sound like support for Israel was the central foreign policy issue for 2012.

The only thing more embarrassing than the behavior of the candidates themselves was the response of leaders of the Jewish community, who in various ways also fell all over themselves in appreciation for these dangerous and vacuous promises. What outside observers saw as groveling, some so-called Jewish leaders saw as proof that no matter which Republican receives the nomination, the Jewish community will have a far better friend in the White House than President Obama.

More specifically, the new Republican front-runner Newt Gingrich truly overreached in his endorsement and support for Israel. First he rejected the Palestinians’ right to an independent state, although he qualified this statement 24 hours later. Then, while speaking at the RJC, Gingrich declared his intention to move the U.S. embassy within hours of his inauguration to Jerusalem. Finally, in an interview with The Jewish Channel, the former Speaker of the House calling the Palestinian people “an invented people,” a statement his staff struggled mightily to explain away.

While these positions, singularly and collectively, may sit well with some extreme right-wingers in the Jewish community, they demonstrated the Gingrich style at its bombastic worst. His behavior and the responses raise a number of serious, troubling matters about this campaign and his candidacy.

First, whatever misgivings Jews have about Obama, it’s hard to see what good would come from giving such prominence to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, especially given the scope and complexity of so many issues facing the United States. Jews represent less than 3 percent of the U.S. population. Jews may vote in key states in dramatically larger proportions than their percentages, and they may contribute significantly more money to campaigns, but giving the issue such prominence could alienate some Americans against Jews and Israel.

Gingrich and his Republican colleagues may have concluded that criticizing Muslims or even erasing Arab identities is a way to win votes, among Jews and Evangelicals. But a future Republican president will need to be able to communicate credibly with Muslims in the United States as well as around the world. Blatantly slamming Muslims is a totally ineffective way to demonstrate an ability to help address geopolitical problems from Iran, to oil production, to Islamic terrorism, to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict itself.

As for Jewish leaders there is dreadful quiet in the face of Gingrich’s remarks and the attitudes expressed by other Republican aspirants last week. This is not a partisan debate, rather a discussion as to what is in Israel’s best interest. The percentage of Jews willing to vote for a Republican nominee — perhaps anyone but Obama — may be rising this year. This does not mean Jewish leadership should become totally uncritical in their analysis of what is best for Israel. Maybe it feels good when Gingrich assures us that the Palestinians are an “invented people,” or when Mitt Romney declares that the president, “for every thug and hooligan, for every radical Islamist, has had nothing but appeasement” (this about an administration which hunted and killed bin Laden, backed a successful civil war against Gadhafi, strengthened sanctions against Iran, and thwarted an Iranian plot to assassinate a Saudi ambassador). But are such statements good policy? Are they presidential?

Even if Gingrich had some justification for calling the Palestinians “an invented people,” it would only demonstrate his marvelous ability to turn a phrase. What would it have to say about his diplomatic skill? For American Jews, the comment offers a glimpse of the potentially explosive nature of his personality, which could well backfire on them and Israel.

This is not to endorse or support President Obama and the Democrats. We need serious answers from Democrats and Republicans on how best to address some immense challenges, including Iranian nukes, Egypt’s next chapter, Syria’s thuggery, and the stalled peace process. But it seems that too many Jews, by applauding candidates willing to say the most outrageous and implausible things in support of Israel, are playing a dangerous game with Israel’s best interests. They would be much better served to look deeper into the grim consequences that glib campaign sloganeering could have for American Jews and the U.S.-Israel alliance.

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