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Israel is Peripheral in the US Elections – Fortunately

Israelis should be relieved that Israel has not been an issue in this American campaign. Recent polls showing just how enthusiastically Americans support Israel should prove even more reassuring
Gil Troy is a Distinguished Scholar of North American history at McGill University. and a former research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. His latest book, co-authored with Natan Sharansky, is Never Alone: Prison, Politics and My People. His other books include Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism, The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction, Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents, Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the

Although Americans glided smoothly to the 2008 presidential election, with most increasingly giddy at the prospect of Barack Obama’s historic victory, they are stumbling haphazardly toward the 2010 congressional midterms, with most increasingly cranky. Pollsters predict that on November 2, 2010, Barack Obama will suffer a major defeat. Gone is the faith that this mortal can solve America’s problems. Gone is most of the hope that galvanized millions. Gone is the sky-high popularity rating that had Republicans and comedians wondering in January 2009, “How are we ever going to criticize, let alone laugh, at this guy?” Gone is the “yes we can” optimism, as many Americans take a “no we can’t” approach. And gone may be the power President Obama drew from his Democratic congressional majority.

When the actor Jamie Foxx led Los Angeles Democrats in chanting “We are not exhausted,” to introduce Obama, even the pro-administration New York Times called it “a backhanded rally cry if there ever was one.”

Many issues have shaped this campaign, especially health care, taxes, immigration, and gay marriage. The challenges of Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan loom in the background. But Israel has been a peripheral issue – which makes sense, for America’s sake and Israel’s.

Americans are, most appropriately, focusing on domestic issues. America’s economic crisis has once again triggered a crisis of faith. Americans rarely view their economic ups and downs as cyclical – but as cataclysmic. In a nation addicted to prosperity and success, hard times are particularly hard. 

Remembering the Great Depression, and his father’s slide from garment center riches into economic and psychic despair, the playwright Arthur Miller recalled: “a fine dusting of guilt fell upon the shoulders of the failed fathers.” Guilt implies responsibility. Rather than blaming economic failure on outside forces, Americans often blame themselves. This approach helps propel most to the kind of creativity that triggers the next boom, but it makes the bust extremely traumatic.

Obama’s liberal agenda and the Republicans’ obstructionism have not yet stimulated the economy, but they have stimulated debate about how big government should be. While this campaign hit a low when Christine O’Donnell, running for Senate from Delaware, felt compelled to insist, “I am not a witch,” the ideological clash is significant. Americans are still debating the issues Ronald Reagan’s election raised in 1980. Obama seems to have misread his mandate to replace George W. Bush as a mandate to restore the Big Government which first sparked Reagan’s revolution.

The truth from 2008 still holds in 2010. What Israel most needs from America is a strong America. Israel needs its best friend in better shape, economically, diplomatically, militarily, psychically. While there is no guarantee this election will improve matters, Israel was lucky that Americans have been debating their future not their friendship with Israel.

Although Israelis and Jews often assume Israel is a central issue, focusing on Israel is not necessarily good news for the Jews. Barack Obama has made two central mistakes in approaching the Middle East. The first, was buying the Palestinian conceit that solving the Palestinian problem is the keystone problem in world politics today. An American-brokered Palestinian-Israeli peace accord tomorrow probably would not even calm the Middle East. Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, Iraq and Afghanistan would remain problematic and unaffected.

Nevertheless, acting on his first flawed assumption, Obama bullied Israel into freezing building in settlements. Obama’s big push for a settlement moratorium created a new opening demand for Palestinian negotiators – which has now become the new first obstacle to peace talks. This move placed an issue of short-term importance, which a real agreement would solve, ahead of the difficult long-term issues which must be resolved for any agreement to hold. It also treated settlements as the major obstacle to peace, ignoring the threat posed by continuing Palestinian dreams of destroying Israel.

Ironically, Israel’s most enthusiastic friends and harshest enemies overplay Israel’s centrality in the world. It has long been the anti-Semite’s distinguishing tic to blame the Jew for many ills; modern anti-Semites masquerading as “just” anti-Zionists impute to the Jewish State undue importance in singling out Israel for condemnation. The entire BDS – Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions – movement hinges on this exaggeration. Labeling Israel the new South Africa, the boycotters caricature Israel as the great threat to world peace, the world’s greatest source of injustice and instability.

Israelis should be relieved that Israel has not been an issue in this American campaign. Recent polls showing just how enthusiastically Americans support Israel should prove even more reassuring. And the late summer survey by the Cohen Center at Brandeis estimating that 63 percent of Jews feel "very much" or "somewhat" connected to Israel while 75 percent agree that caring about Israel is an important part of their Jewish identities, should be even more reassuring.

Nevertheless, despite this popular enthusiasm for Israel, no one should interpret any setback Barack Obama may suffer at the polls as any kind of message about Israel. Nor will a Democratic defeat lift the pressure on Israel. If Obama feels he did better than the pundits predicted, he may feel more empowered to continue pushing Israel around without pressuring Palestinians equally. Alternatively, if the Democrats lose so badly Obama fears he may be a one-term president, he may pressure Israel to give him some victory somewhere. Foreign policy is often the last refuge of a frustrated president.

In short, after the election, Israelis will awake to a world similar to the world today. Obama will remain president. And the perpetual conundrum – how to give the Palestinians enough concessions to feel satisfied while giving Israelis enough assurances to feel safe – will also persist. Few should expect dramatic lurches in American policy – or quick resolutions of this complex conflict.

This article appeared originally on the Jerusalem Post website.

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The End of Policy Substance in Israel Politics