October 25, 2012

Thanks to GOP, Israel is now debatable

In the only Vice-Presidential debate for the current U.S. election cycle, Israel seemed to be the most frequently mentioned foreign country; in the third Presidential debate it was second only to...Iran. Republican ads attacking President Obama also gravitate to Israel as a touchstone of any candidate's righteousness and worthiness.

Presumably, the United Kingdom is even a closer U.S. ally than Israel is, and yet it's barely been mentioned during the current race for the White House. But Prime Minister David Cameron doesn't seem to mind. The UK is in no danger of being reduced to a partisan gag line. Israel's leaders, on the other hand, seem intent on being part of our American conversation, opening to question what has become automatic U.S. support regardless of political party.

This situation has emboldened many Jews and other Americans who feel Israel should NOT have enjoyed relative immunity from criticism or censure since 1973 (except for President Ford's threats and Bush 41's withholding of loan guarantees). Onetime AIPAC faithful like M.J. Rosenberg now applaud the shattering of Washington's monolithic and automatic obedience to one version of Israel's best interest (and of course, U.S. national interest, too...). For some, Israel's bad news is good news, but overall what Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may have greeted as good news is rapidly devolving into bad.

Obviously, Iran and Israel evoke very different emotions for most Americans, but they do share something in common: Both have been transformed into partisan wedge issues for Republicans to attack Democrats. In Iran's case, this elevates a rogue regime to the status of a global power, meriting a high priority in determining our next President.

Prime Minister Netanyahu and his right-leaning allies in the United States have been consistently criticizing the President's commitment to the Jewish State even since before he became the nominee back in 2008. And now Israel is being framed as a central question for our national narrative. This may strike many Americans as a distraction at best, and an insult to our serious national problems at worst.

In no small part due to the Netanyahu-GOP public-relations strategy, Iran's status as a leading opponent and imminent threat to the United States is inflating the Islamic Republic beyond what it deserves -- even as President Obama has far surpassed his predecessor in rallying international support for crippling sanctions and effectively isolating Iran. By also inserting the Jewish State into the same balance of fight-or-flight and friend-or-foe, however, the Prime Minister has delimited and DIMINISHED Israel's status. Israel risks being transformed from a bipartisan, perennial, bedrock ally into a political and strategic PROBLEM to be solved and a weapon for one politician to use against another. In fact, "risk" may be too optimistic a word.

Environmental protection, reasonable gun control, health insurance reform and campaign finance reform all used to be bipartisan issues -- until Republican strategists realized they could be turned into partisan weapons against the Democrats. Politicians like Senator John McCain were forced to choose sides, or risk -- as in the case of the McCain-Feingold campaign reforms -- being at odds with their own party. By now, each of those issues has been reduced and marginalized. It's painful to watch U.S.-Israel relations head down the same path, and frustrating that this downgrade is being enabled by the Prime Minister of Israel and his staunchest U.S.-based supporters.

[I since stand corrected: In the third Presidential debate, Israel was the third most mentioned foreign country, behind Iran and China -- talk about the company you keep!] 

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