While it is hardly news that Republicans have been trying for about 30 years to pry Jewish voters away from the Democrats by emphasizing support for Israel, the centrality of this argument as a way to win broader political support is new indeed. This is about more than winning Jewish votes, although that is part of it. Israel is emerging as the central Republican argument for their foreign policy of pre-emptive war and global belligerence.
In a backhanded way, this is a sign of how much American Jews and Israel have won deep and bipartisan support. It's increasingly possible to win voters who are not Jewish by supporting Israel and support for Israel may now symbolize an agreed pillar of American foreign policy. (You may hate the war in Iraq, but still strongly support Israel.)
The most spectacular example is the President's shocking speech to the Israeli Knesset in which he accused Obama (under the pretend guide of "some") of abetting terrorism in a manner comparable to those who "appeased" the Nazis, all because he would talk with Iran. McCain and his buddy Joe Leiberman immediately jumped in to support Bush's comments. McCain, perhaps unwisely, brought up Ronald Reagan as someone who would never, never talk to those mean Iranians. (I guess Reagan sending them weapons was better since it didn't require actual conversation.)
But this is just the tip of the iceberg. Israel is becoming the all purpose mantra of embattled Republicans. Don't like the Iraq war? It was really fought to protect Israel. John McCain's ally Rev. John Hagee may be a total crackpot, but hey, he really really loves Israel. What he thinks about Jews may not wear quite so well. Israel is the explanation for basically the entire Bush foreign policy. (As in: We had to free the Middle East by force so the newly liberated and grateful nations would rush to make peace with Israel.)
In going after presumptive nominee Obama, Republicans are now rephrasing statements in order to make their case. Republican congressional leaders twisted a statement by Obama that was in support of Israel to make it sound as if he were blaming Israel for Middle East unrest. Expect more of the same.
To rephrase the classic question, is all of this good for Israel? Bush's Knesset speech suggests that he expects Israel, where he is popular, to be a central, partisan symbol in the 2008 American election. But Israel's interest is to have a sympathetic and supportive American president, whether McCain or Obama. Israel's American base depends on drawing support from the leaders of both parties, so as not to be subject to the political winds of which party is up and which is down. Is it really Israel's job to save the imperiled Republicans from what is shaping up to be a major November drubbing?
On the other hand, these attacks may push Obama to ramp up his communications with the Jewish community regarding Israel. Republicans generally get a pass from supporters of Israel (except Bush, Senior and his friend James Baker) because their "brand" has been solidly established on that front. Democrats have to work harder to establish their bona fides, but don't always realize that they have to do this. Didn't I already make myself clear, they often say? Say it a thousand times if you have to.
Remember that in 2008 defining how a Democratic foreign policy is good for Israel is not only essential to winning Jewish voters, but to making a credible case for a broader American foreign policy. When it comes to change, foreign policy is a little dicey.
And support for Israel is a great way to provide reassurance that dropping Bush's foreign policy will still leave at least one enduring fundamental intact.
Read Raphael Sonenshein's latest opinion piece for the Los Angeles times -- 'In Tom Bradley's shadow (The contest between Mark Ridley-Thomas and Bernard Parks and is steeped in L.A.'s black political history)'