It’s the eve of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, so in the interest of a happy one amid the gathering global gloom can I make a request of Republican Christian evangelical politicians professing to be friends of Israel? Next time the temptation to sound off on the best interests of the Jewish state strikes, CAN IT! Israel has enough on its plate without being exploited as campaign fodder by blowhards who, every time, they open their mouths on the subject reveal their shocking ignorance of its past history, present political reality and future security.
According to Mitt Romney, Barack Obama has “thrown Israel under the bus”. Was he even listening to the president’s speech at the UN? To what, precisely could even the most hardline defender of Israeli foreign policy take exception, exactly?
Or take governor Rick Perry who lately has used every opportunity available, to denounce President Obama’s Middle East policy as some sort of betrayal of the Jewish state. This new-found vocalisation comes hard on Mr Perry’s response to a question about the potential for the Taliban to secure Pakistani nuclear weapons that consisted of comments so inanely incoherent that by comparison they made Sarah Palin look like Henry Kissinger. Somebody in Mr Perry’s entourage has discovered the phrase “moral equivalence” as the governor can’t stop using it every opportunity he gets to assert that President Obama treats Palestinian grievances and Israeli concerns with impartiality. Just setting aside the fact that no one in Israel (and in the Jewish community world wide) would deny that Palestinians have suffered tragically over the past half century, Mr Perry’s assertion that President Obama treats rocket attacks by Hamas and Jewish settlement construction on the West Bank as “equivalent” threats to peace is manifestly absurd and unfounded.
But then Mr Perry – and others among the evangelicals aspiring to the White House like Michelle Bachmann – share the fundamentalist vision of the settlers themselves that they are fulfilling a Biblical covenant on the “Land of Israel” when they evict Palestinian villagers, demolish their houses, bulldoze their olive groves and embitter the possibility of any future coexistence of the two peoples in their own respective states.
Mr Perry is fond of calling President Obama “naive” but every time he opens his mouth on this subject he reveals his comical unfamiliarity with what has actually been happening in Israeli-Palestinian relations over the past 20 years. Insisting on “direct negotiations” between the parties, he fails to notice that that is exactly what happened at Oslo and at Sharm el-Sheikh. In both cases the Palestine Liberation Organisation formally recognised Israel’s right to exist and to live in peace and security within mutually-agreed borders. When he upbraids President Obama for saying that the starting point of those frontiers ought to be the Green Line of 1967; that has been exactly the position of Israeli and US governments (including Republican administrations) for a long time; with adjustments made through territorial swaps. That was the basis on which Ehud Olmert - not exactly a pinko peacenik – and Tzipi Livni negotiated with Mahmoud Abbas in 2008.
If not made on the basis of the 1967 frontier, then it is incumbent on the likes of Mr Perry, Mr Romney and Ms Bachmann to say where secure boundaries might lie that would not involve the permanent Israeli occupation of the West Bank, inhabited as it is by a large Palestinian population? No Israeli government with any sense of a secure future – from Menahem Begin to Ariel Sharon to Mr Olmert – has clung to the dangerous fantasy of annexation, involving as it must either the subjugation of a permanently alienated population or their catastrophic and immoral displacement.
But of course there are those among the most feverishly intransigent and irredentist Jewish settlers who dream and speak of nothing else and, like the Christian evangelicals, invoke the scriptural covenant promising “Judea and Samaria” to the Jews as enough of a warrant on which to base foreign and domestic policy. They represent the Israel Mr Perry, and Ms Bachmann have in mind when they purport to defend its future.
There is of course, another Israel entirely, increasingly impatient with the settlers and with the ultra-orthodox who bear none of the burdens of serving in the military, yet sustain their religious schools from public funds while the rest of Israel’s people live in increasing economic distress as the furious mass demonstrations against Benjamin Netanyahu’s government made abundantly clear. But to the likes of the radio ranter Glenn Beck who had the chutzpah to present himself as “restoring courage” to Israel (I hadn’t noticed that it had lost it) near the Western Wall in August, those hundreds of thousands of Israelis must have been stooges of the “hard left”. According to polling done by the Harry Truman Institute of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in May 2010, a clear and growing majority of Israelis are willing to dismantle the majority of West Bank settlements as part of a comprehensive peace policy.
To Texas evangelicals like Pastor John Hagee who led the prayer assembly that kicked off Mr Perry’s campaign, and who presides over Christians United for Israel, this secular, tolerant, pragmatic, culturally daring ethnically diverse Jewish nation is not the authentic Israel at all. When Tel Aviv stages a massive and spectacular gay pride march, it turns into Sodom and is in the same state of “rebellion” against God’s commandment that Mr Hagee in his Jerusalem Countdown asserted had been the origin of anti-semitism. (Ah, so it’s the fault of the Jews, I see).
This, of course, is the real divide in the politics of the Jews, as in the politics of Muslims and the politics of the US: between zealots and pragmatists; between those who ultimately shape their policy in accordance with revelation and those who depend on reason. When Mr Perry says “as a Christian I have a directive to support Israel”, we know that it’s the Campaign Manager Up There who is whispering in his ear. If these were normal times and he was just another doctrinally-driven fundamentalist we could leave him, and rest of the evangelical tribe to their own imaginings. But they are aspiring to the presidency of the United States and are in a position, even before the campaign gets going in earnest, to do terrible harm to the people they profess to hold so close to their hearts.
So leshana tova to you governor Perry but if you want to give the Jews anything approaching a Happy New Year, for God’s sake give it a rest.
The writer is an FT contributing editor and best-selling author of books about America, Britain and Israel.
The unconditional Republican support poses more risks than opportunities for Israel
Benjamin Netanyahu has already managed to leverage Republican all-out support for Israel to his advantage. Over the past few months, Barack Obama’s administration has adopted a markedly less critical stance towards Israel – most notably in the context of the Palestinian bid for UN membership last week. The shift will have been motivated not least by concern that the GOP is making inroads into the Jewish vote, a particular concern ahead of next year´s presidential elections.
In the longer term, however, the unconditional Republican embrace of Israel poses more risks than opportunities for the country. That is because it threatens to undermine one of the greatest strengths of the US-Israeli relationship – the bipartisan nature of political support for Israel. Indeed, one of the very few policies on which both Democrats and Republicans can still agree even today is the paramount importance of strong ties between Israel and America. Year after year, pro-Israel resolutions in Congress are carried by Mubarak-style majorities, and with the support of deputies from both sides of an otherwise deeply-divided legislature.
That situation is, of course, unlikely to change in the near future. But Republican efforts to paint themselves as the party of authentic, unwavering support for Israel – coupled with unfounded attacks on the president´s pro-Israel record – are certain to damage Israel´s cause among Democrats and liberal American voters. Should Mr Obama win a second term in office next year, Israel may yet rue the current Republican rhetoric.
The writer is the FT’s Jerusalem correspondent.