If you’re a Scroll regular, you’ll have noticed a pet theory of mine cropping up recently. Basically, it goes like this: Obama’s handling of Israel will be a not-insignificant issue in the presidential election, not exclusively among Jews (though certainly among them), nor exclusively among Jews and Zionist Christians (though their footprint is certainly an effective force multiplier), but among everyone. What will happen, I believe, is that the Republican candidate will point to Israel (partly because he or she won’t be able to point to experience, or Al Qaeda, or Iraq, or China, or Cuba) to paint President Obama in the same colors that every Republican has painted every Democrat since the Vietnam War: weak on America’s enemies, disloyal to America’s friends, and out-of-step with American values. That Obama has done a poor job convincing Jews otherwise—as we are soon to see when Democrat David Weprin either loses or barely wins his special election against Republican Bob Turner in large part for the sin of being in the same party as Obama—will be a crucial part of the proof the GOP candidate will build.
So this week seems like a good time to talk to a few people about this. In an hour, I’ll post an interview with Matt Duss, of the Center for American Progress, who will provide a center-left perspective on my theory. For a more rightward take, let’s talk to Tevi Troy, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and author of the Tablet Magazine article that predicted the contours of the Weprin-Turner race, right down to Ed Koch’s involvement.
Could we see Israel becoming an issue beyond just Jewish voters?
The Jewish vote is a very small percentage of Republican primary voters, especially in states like Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. Only a quarter of Jews are Republicans, and the Jewish population overall is small, in those states even smaller. So they’re not just looking for Jewish voters.
Israel does become a stand-in for a type of foreign policy: An America-focused foreign policy for democracy, freedom, and markets, in contrast to a European foreign policy, which is strongly critical of Israel, but also is in the direction of more deference to the U.N. and in general.
In contrast to the Bush administration, this whole notion that the Bush administration was unilateral (I don’t accept this, but still), Obama’s was that he would be more collaborative; there was the Cairo speech, reaching out to the Arab world.
The supporters of Israel tend to have a very different view of the world, a more American-focused view, pro-freedom, pro-markets, pro-democracy. It becomes a litmus test. Not unlike where you stood on the Soviet Union in the history of the Cold War.
But there are other issues. Do you think Israel will be the one that gets made a big deal of?
It’s hard for me to think of anything that is a more obvious stand-in for a candidate’s foreign policy views.
Is Obama vulnerable on Israel?
He’s certainly more vulnerable to it than Bill Clinton was, the last incumbent Democratic president. There was a—I think fair—perception that Clinton had a strong affinity for Israel. The “Shalom, Chaver” moment [at Yitzhak Rabin’s funeral, that is how Clinton closed his eulogy: “Goodbye, friend”]. He was seen as, at his heart, a close friend of Israel. Whereas Obama is someone who is not seen as a close friend. I think it’s fair.
So does this vulnerability present an opportunity for the Republican, whoever that ends up being?
I think that it’s more of an opportunity for Israel. If Israel is seen as a stand-in for a robust American foreign policy, that’s only to the good of Israel, that only makes it more stark. I think it helps maintain U.S. support for Israel.
Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.