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October 2, 2003

Upsetting the Bipartisan Applecart

http://www.jewishjournal.com/world/article/upsetting_the_bipartisan_applecart_20031003

President Bush addresses the United Nations General Assembly Sept. 23, 2003. Photo by Sophie Paris/United Nations

President Bush addresses the United Nations General Assembly Sept. 23, 2003. Photo by Sophie Paris/United Nations

It is a troubling paradox: Israel may be protected from new pressure from Washington by the upcoming presidential election, but that protection could foreshadow long-term damage to U.S.-Israel relations.

The reason: more and more, the pro-Israel effort is getting sucked into the quicksand of bitter partisan politics.

In today's take-no-enemies political climate, the bipartisanship that has been the goal of pro-Israel activism in Washington -- a goal steadfastly pursued, if not often attained -- is in dire jeopardy.

The good news for pro-Israel lobbyists is that President George W. Bush and his political team see strong, smooth U.S.-Israel relations as a political necessity. Two big reasons: Jewish money and Jewish votes.

With his poll rankings sinking, the President is counting on a record war chest to blow past the Democratic opposition next year. Increasingly, re-election strategists see Jewish money as an important piece of the funding puzzle. Bush's support for a hawkish government in Israel, they believe, will be a strong selling point with pro-Israel donors.

Even the wildest optimist among the Republicans doesn't expect Bush to win a majority of Jewish votes. But a jump to 30 percent -- in 2000, Bush won only 19 percent -- could prove critical, especially in a state the Democrats remember with trepidation: Florida.

Maintaining a cordial relationship with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is seen as a catalyst for that kind of financial and electoral bounce from Jewish donors and voters. Republican Jewish activists are already hitting hard on the Democratic challengers for being soft in their support for Israel.

Even more important, smooth relations with the Sharon government are necessary to keep Evangelical Christians in line. In recent years, the religious right has made support for Israel its top foreign policy priority. The Evangelicals say they simply feel called by God to support Israel, but apparently the Lord has a special preference for Israel's right wing; even Ariel Sharon isn't hawkish enough for many of today's new breed of Christian Zionist.

There's no danger the religious right will turn to the Democrats next year, but Bush needs a high and enthusiastic turnout from them, and winning amens from their top leaders for his support for Sharon can contribute to that cause.

Those political factors point to relatively smooth U.S.- Israel relations in the short run -- not an insignificant development at a time when world opinion is overwhelmingly hostile to Israel. But the auguries for the future aren't so reassuring.

In an increasingly polarized America, there is a growing danger that Israel will get whipsawed by a partisan balance that can change with staggering speed. For decades, pro-Israel activism has tried to steer a deliberately bipartisan course. The idea was that support for Israel should never be associated with any particular faction, providing a layer of insulation for those inevitable times when the political winds change direction.

True, politicians in both parties sometimes tried to gain an advantage by using Israel as a political club to bash their opponents. But for the most part, there was an acknowledgement that support for Israel should not be Democratic or Republican , liberal or conservative.

That could be changing.

Conservative Republicans, who now ardently support Israel, are increasingly using support not just for Israel but for the most right-wing factions there as a litmus test that they hope and expect most Democrats will fail. The religious right is one of the most polarizing forces in the nation today; Americans are either for them or bitterly against them, with middle ground hard to find. To the extent that support for Israel is now linked to this faction, the Jewish State could be dragged into the center of one of the "culture wars" that increasingly dominate American political life.

It's revealing that some of Israel's biggest boosters today -- former presidential candidate Gary Bauer, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and the Rev. Pat Robertson -- are slashing, controversial figures who have brought the same aggressive stance to their support of the Sharon government. That association could discourage even loyal supporters of Israel on the left and add to the erosion in the bipartisan foundation built so carefully by the pro-Israel lobby.

And what will happen when the volatile Israeli electorate turns to left-leaning leaders? Will the Evangelicals still support an Israel that aggressively seeks land-for-peace agreements with the Palestinians?

This isn't to say that support from the right should be spurned. But it should be balanced by much more energetic and sustained pro-Israel outreach to other factions, starting with the liberal Democrats who once comprised the pro-Israel base in Washington.

The Jewish community itself needs to avoid being caught up in the venomous political environment of the day. There is an important place in the Jewish community for the political right, which is enjoying its day in the sun -- but also for groups on the left, which seem to be in full retreat.

Partisan leaders can afford to play zero-sum games with Israel; the Jewish community, concerned more about Israel's future in a troubling time than about scoring political points, needs to take a different approach.

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