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Is Israel an Appropriate Political Issue?

Brouhaha over ADL pledge sets stage for heated election year

Marc Tracy
October 25, 2011
President Obama yesterday.(Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
President Obama yesterday.(Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

There are two bits of internecine warfare currently joined in the insular American Jewish political community. One is small bore and involves incendiary comments made by an Emergency Committee for Israel board member, which J Street said were basically genocidal, and it’s become a Thing; here is the reporting you need and, perhaps, desire.

The other strikes me as a bigger deal, especially as we enter an election year early next month. The Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee jointly issued a “National Pledge for Unity on Israel” in order “to encourage other national organizations, elected officials, religious leaders, community groups and individuals to rally around bipartisan support for Israel while preventing the Jewish State from becoming a wedge issue in the upcoming campaign season.” The Republican Jewish Coalition responded to the statement with a strong rejection. “Allowing the American people to see where candidates stand, pro and con on critical issues, is the hallmark of our free and democratic political system,” said head Matthew Brooks. “For this reason, the RJC will not be a signer to this pledge. This effort to stifle debate on U.S. policy toward Israel runs counter to this American tradition.” Yikes!

Given President Obama’s political missteps when it comes to Israel, it seems undeniable that a call to prevent Israel “from becoming a wedge issue” is pro-Democratic in effect, and so likely in intent. The last time somebody prominently played the “Israel should be nonpartisan” card, it was Democrats bickering with Republicans in front of Prime Minister Netanyahu in May.

At the same time, much of the statement reads as “politics stops at the water’s edge”-type boilerplate, and indeed the Jewish establishment has historically been especially adept at instilling a view of Israel that crosses party lines; even Commentary, which takes the RJC’s position (and which, I can’t resist adding, was for most of its life published by the AJC), admires much of the pledge’s sentiment for that precise reason.

Moreover, the AJC and especially the ADL are not the first two organizations you would peg as Democratic or Obama shills. The ADL is a group seen as centrist or even center-right on Israel and likely has funders that reflect that. If this is the sort of thing it is calling for, then it could reflect a genuine backlash at the recent hyper-politicization of the Israel issue at the hands of groups like ECI that surrounded events such as the U.N. General Assembly and the special election in New York.

For pro-Israel Americans of a right-wing, Republican bent, the conundrum is this: You don’t want to so successfully cast President Obama as Israel’s foe and then have him win re-election. Because then the American people will have elected an anti-Israel candidate; in that scenario, the president owes you nothing; worse, he would have been elected despite being who you say he is, and therefore his mandate, if anything, would be to do all the things the right says he secretly wants to do, like divide Jerusalem, support the terrorists, etc.

I sense the pledge is a warning shot: At some point, it says, politicization of Israel could cross the appropriate line. At the same time, the RJC’s easy dismissal of the pledge proves that we haven’t even approached that point yet. If and when it’s AIPAC pushing the “water’s edge” line, that’s when you’ll see GOP backtracking.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.

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