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Tea Party Foreign Policy

Will Israel be the field of the forthcoming GOP civil war?

Marc Tracy
December 06, 2010
Sarah Palin.(Eric Thayer/Getty Images)
Sarah Palin.(Eric Thayer/Getty Images)

The conventional wisdom following last month’s midterm elections is that the rousing Republican victory would mean a more favorable climate for Israel and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government in the United States—that the extra-friendly Congress would make it more difficult for the Obama Administration to put the screws to Netanyahu the way it has. However, the rise of the volatile and unpredictable Tea Party—which for practical, political purposes is a part of the Republican Party but at the same time is not necessarily of it, particularly on foreign policy matters—complicates that conventional wisdom considerably.

Late last month, the New York Times reported on this dissonance. Republican leadership as well as its influential neoconservative wing are, of course, staunch backers of Israel broadly and Netanyahu’s center-right policies specifically. The Tea Party, however, has an isolationist aura about it, and isolationism generally tends to correlate with less support for Israel. This is why there was such a panic when soon-to-be House Majority Leader Eric Cantor floated the notion of separating Israeli aid from other foreign aid: Even isolationism that explicitly makes an exception for Israel is considered dangerous by groups like AIPAC.

The Times reporters emphasize that the party leadership is still overwhelmingly pro-Israel. But Tablet Magazine contributor Barry Gewen has a new post pointing to very real fissures between the leadership and the Tea Party, and he seems much less sanguine that they will simply be papered over.

Gewen points to the two Pauls—father and son Ron and Rand, the former a longtime Texas congressman and cult GOP presidential candidate, the latter a newly elected senator from Kentucky and arguably the most prominent true Tea Partier—and various statements they have made about Israel and the Mideast. Ron Paul “has repeatedly condemned Israeli policies, often in the harshest terms,” Gewen reports. “One of his staffers declared that, ‘By far the most powerful lobby in Washington of the bad sort is the Israeli government.’ Paul’s opponents inside and outside the Tea Party see undertones of anti-Semitism in his positions, or worse.”

Gewen’s point, and it seems to me persuasive, is that while the Tea Partiers’ main focus—if that isn’t a contradiction in terms—are domestic issues and general anger that has concentrated itself on the Obama Administration, they do have opinions on foreign policy and Israel, and they are not the same as the pro-Israel tilt of the GOP establishment, and when the issue is raised they will not be shy, and they will not be without influence.

The bellwether might be Sarah Palin. Up until now, she has, to paraphrase Gewen, out-Netanyahu’d Netanyahu, forcibly defending Israeli settlements (which is no surprise given that Bill Kristol was one of her earliest patrons and her chief foreign policy adviser is neoconservative Randy Scheunemann). Tea Partiers, according to Gewen, have not ignored this, or let her off the hook because she is the ultimate Mama Grizzly; rather, they have called her charming things like “a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” “simplistic,” and “a neocon Stepford wife.”

Here’s a prediction: Sometime in the next year, as GOP primary season begins, some issue—whether directly about Israel or touching on policies and values intimately related to American Israel policy—will come up and bring this oft-overlooked fissure to the fore. Where the GOP candidates—especially Palin, particularly if she runs—come down on it will be very telling.

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