Something interesting has been happening in British politics this year that
ought to gain the attention of Americans, including those who generally have no
interest in the subject.
What has happened is that Britain's opposition Conservative Party has struck
up an unlikely alliance with the left wing of the governing Labor Party on the
issue of the Middle East. The Tories, whose leadership in recent decades have
been broadly sympathetic toward Israel though not nearly as friendly as
American conservatives have decided to throw the Jewish state under the
proverbial double-decker bus as they seek to return to power.
Recently, William Hague, the Tory spokesman on foreign affairs, denounced
Israel's war of self-defense against Lebanon-based Hezbollah terrorists. Hague's
use of the canard about "disproportionate" Israeli counterattacks on
terrorists and the endorsement of the statement by Party leader David Cameron
was a signal that the Conservatives, whose standing in the British polls makes
them a real threat to unseat Labor in the next election, would not allow their
foes to paint them as too friendly to Israel.
The Tory's decision to flip on Israel took place at the same time that
British Prime Minister Tony Blair was forced by his Labor followers to walk the
plank and announce that he would finally leave office next year. Though Blair has
been damaged by his support for the war in Iraq, it appears that the straw
that broke the camel's back for the Labor rank-and-file was his backing for
Israel during its war with Hezbollah.
What all this means is that although British support for Israel has been
tepid even at its height, an era in which the last three prime ministers
(Conservatives Margaret Thatcher and John Major, and then Blair) had been backers of
the Jewish state, and desirous of Jewish votes on that basis, is likely over.
The large Muslim vote is up for grabs - seemingly making hostility to Israel a
consensus position in British politics.
What has that to do with anything going on here? The answer is perhaps more
than many of us think.
The loudest debate going on in the American Jewish world the last couple of
months has to do with the renewed attempt of the Republican Party to make
inroads among Jewish voters on the basis of its support for Israel, and what it
contends is the less than exemplary record of its Democratic foes.
To that end, the Republican Jewish Coalition a Jewish GOP support group
has been placing ads in Jewish publications around the country skewering the
Democrats and painting their own party as the good guys on Israel.
The reaction from large segments of a Jewish community, in which the
overwhelming majority of its members are reliable supporters of the Democrats, has
been emotional and angry. They are appalled at the idea that Republicans would
have the chutzpah to ask for their votes. The point isn't so much that they
reject the content of the ads, but that they consider the entire exercise to be
Many seem to be echoing the line from the classic Broadway musical "Fiorello,"
in which the victory of a Republican congressional candidate in a Democratic
district is greeted with dismay. Like that victory of future New York City
mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, many Jews think the GOP ads "just ain't democratic."
Of course, perspective on the merit of the ads is obviously dependent on
The Republicans have a fair point when they note that anti-Israel leftists,
such as those affiliated with the MoveOn.org group, have real pull within the
Democratic Party these days. By comparison, anti-Israel figures on the right,
like the odious Pat Buchanan, are bereft of influence in the current GOP.
Moreover, the decline of the hawkish "Scoop Jackson" wing of the Democratic Party
was finalized this past summer with the rejection of Sen. Joseph Lieberman by
Nevertheless, the Democrats are also right to point out that attempts to tar
their party as anti-Israel are not true. Support for Israel is a bipartisan
affair, and Democratic Party leaders, as well as the overwhelming majority of
their caucus in both the House and the Senate, are genuine backers.
What Jewish Democrats do need to do is to confront the strain of anti-Zionism
growing on the left and in the anti-war movement, and ensure that it is kept
out of the mainstream of their party. That is a task that will be even more
important if, as now seems likely, the Democrats prevail in next month's
But Democrats are seeking to delegitimize the entire Reublican campaign with
their claim that GOP attempts to use Israel as a wedge issue will undermine
the bipartisan consensus on the issue. Some go even further and assert that by
identifying support for Israel with the Bush administration, the ads may have
the effect of making it less attractive for Democrats and liberals to
sympathize with an Israel that is linked with a president and a party that they hate.
KEEP THEM ACCOUNTABLE
What Democrats seem to want is for the entire issue to be taken off the
table. That would give them a tactical advantage, but behind it lies the dubious
notion that holding either party accountable for their performance on Middle
East issues is itself somehow not kosher.
Flash back to 1992, when Democrats made hay over the contemptible policies
and behavior of the administration of the first President Bush and his Secretary
of State James Baker toward Israel. Then, there was no question that Israel
was an issue and one that would cost the Republicans votes.
Taking Israel off the table today is no more legitimate a stance than a call
for keeping church-state separation off the agenda would be on the part of
Republicans. And if anyone thinks that having a conservative president support
Israel will turn off liberals, maybe the problem is more with the liberals than
No matter which party you support, what we should strive for is
accountability from them. And the only way to hold political parties accountable is
to make them pay for mistakes or to reward them for good behavior at the ballot box.
By contrast, if a key issue is taken out of the discussion, the parties will
inevitably stop prioritizing it.
Those currently calling for Israel to be eliminated from our debates should
peek across the Atlantic to see what a country where appeals to pro-Israel
sentiments have been sidelined looks like.
As different as Britain is from the United States, if there is a bipartisan
consensus in support of Israel in this country, it is because the two major
parties have spent the last 30 years or so actually competing for Jewish votes on
this basis. The moment we tell them to stop will be the time when those who
would break the consensus will have a leg up. As was the case in Britain, there
are other constituencies that are all too eager to step in and give
politicians a reason to switch sides.
So let the parties debate which is the most ardent supporter of Israel. It
may be messy, but it beats the alternative.