Jewish World Review Jan. 28, 2000 /21 Shevat, 5760
Israel Still an American Election Issue?
http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- WITH THE IOWA CAUCUSES come and gone and the New Hampshire primary set for next week, the 2000 presidential election campaign is now officially under way. For the next couple of months — the time it will take for both major parties to determine their nominees — the pols and the pundits will be spinning full time.
But amid the puffery that goes with presidential politics, there is something missing this time around — the frenzy to determine which of the leading candidates is the most, or the least, pro-Israel.
In the recent past, many Republicans and Democrats were desperate to appear as solidly pro-Israel and not above trying to portray their rivals as soft on Israel’s Arab foes or insufficiently ardent in their desire to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. Not this campaign.
This year, all of the Republican and Democratic hopefuls have made statements on Israel and the Middle East and almost all have records on these issues.
And yes, all six Republican candidates showed up at the Republican Jewish Coalition’s cattle show last fall and both Democrats made the scene at the General Assembly of the United Jewish Coalition in November. Presidential pro-Israel rhetoric was in the air at both events.
But Israel as an issue seems to be completely absent from the discussion about presidential politics. For the first time in my lifetime, politics really does seem to be stopping at the water’s edge. Indeed, to judge by many of the people I have been talking to, it doesn’t even appear to be that crucial a factor in determining Jewish support.
Why is this?
First among the explanations is that this year, issues themselves seem to be less important than who the candidate is as a person. This is largely due to a prosperous economy, relative peace abroad and the fact that most Americans have little if any respect for the incumbent president, even if they voted for him. Many Americans are saying this year that issues and substance are less important than “character.” I think that most of the credit for this trend goes to President Clinton, who has shown us what happens when we elect a president who has none.
PEACE AND POLITICS
What point is there in asking a presidential contender if he will pressure Israel to accept a land-for-peace deal with the Arabs, if the Israelis themselves have already agreed to one?
And how can a candidate hope to gain traction among Jewish contributors and voters by pledging to immediately move the U.S. embassy to Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, if the Israeli government has itself downplayed the issue?
Nor is there any point making ringing rhetorical points about the unity of Jerusalem, when savvy observers of Israel know that the current government is treating areas of eastern Jerusalem where the city’s Arab minority predominates as if they were parts of the “West Bank” where Israel has already conceded “civilian control” of the land to the Palestinian Authority.
Of course, virtually every successful candidate for president has made such pledges about Jerusalem and all have reneged on them once in the White House. Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton were three of the most egregious backsliders. No one with any sense takes presidential promises on Israel at face value.
Third, and perhaps most important, is that a lot of the intended audience for most of the pro-Israel rhetoric are themselves no longer terribly interested in hearing it. American Jews have turned inward. Like most Americans, they are more concerned with their own lives than the fate of world Jewry. This attitude, which has been termed “parochial” by Jewish leaders who have a more global vision, has animated many positive trends in American Jewish life, such as the increased support for day schools, but it has also affected our ability to generate community-wide passion about Israel.
American Jews have been told, over and over again, that peace has arrived in the Middle East. Those predictions may well prove overly optimistic, if not downright foolish. But until the other shoe drops, how can you expect them to get worked up about the question marks surrounding Texas Gov. George W. Bush or the pro-Israel virtues of Vice President Al Gore, former Sen. Bill Bradley or even Steve Forbes? Many are also turned off by the festering issue of Jewish religious pluralism in the Jewish state.
This might change should the third-party candidacy of an avowed Israel-basher such as Pat Buchanan catch fire this fall. One would hope that both Democrats and Republicans would choose to make hay with Jewish voters by heaping abuse on the despicable Buchanan. But short of that, is there anything that will motivate Jewish voters?
CARING MORE ABOUT ABORTION
Over the last two decades, Republican campaign consultants like Frank Luntz have been telling GOP hopefuls that a pro-Israel platform was the key to opening up Jewish wallets. But, even though Congressional Republicans have become, for the most part, just as reliable on aid to Israel as Democrats, their share of Jewish votes is just as small as before.
The reason for this is that most American Jews are far more afraid of Rev. Pat Robertson and the Christian Coalition (who are as important to the Republican coalition as African-Americans are to the Democrats) than they are of Syria’s Hafez Assad. In a rare moment of candor, Luntz once told me that at the current rate of change in Jewish political allegiance, conservatives would attain majority status among Jews in “about 150 years.”
Though American Jews may no longer be as reliably liberal as they were in the 1960s, a pro-choice stand on abortion and a willingness to vilify the National Rifle Association is the red meat that most Jewish audiences hunger for, not speeches about Jerusalem.
So, for at least this year, the candidate competition for the title of greatest friend of Israel is off.
In the coming years, the challenge for supporters of Israel won’t lie in
monitoring the foreign policy positions of American politicians so much as it
will be in trying to prop up the flagging interest of American