What does the capture of Saddam Hussein mean for Jewish voters in 2004? Will it shift the preferences of Jewish Democrats as they weigh the party's presidential contenders? Will it push Jewish voters closer to supporting President Bush for re-election?
The heartfelt connection that most American Jews feel for the State of Israel overlaps with the broadly progressive, Democratic loyalties that characterize most (though of course not all) American Jewish voters to create a volatile mixture of instincts when foreign policy comes into play. The spectrum runs from Jews who back Bush because of his staunchly pro-Israel policy, to those who support Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman's Democratic version of pro-Israel politics, to those who support Howard Dean's blistering critique of Bush's foreign policy. And many Jewish voters at this stage are trying to decide among their choices.
From the perspective of those who care deeply about Israel, the Iraq War becomes quite complicated. While there was little credible evidence that Iraq posed a threat to the security of a United States more immediately threatened by Osama bin Ladin, Saddam may have been a more serious, direct threat to Israel.Â
He was in a position to define himself as the Arab world's leading edge against Israel. He had launched missiles into Israel during the first Gulf War, and after his capture, information emerged that Israel had trained commandos to attempt to assassinate him.
The problem for Israel is that while anything might be better than keeping Saddam in power, removing his regime will not be enough to guarantee Israel's security. Unless the Bush administration shows greater wisdom than it has so far in administering Iraq, who knows what kind of regime will emerge and whether it will be even more hostile to Israel?
Placing Israel's security in the hands of an American administration that is blundering through its glorious experiment in imperialism is hardly reassuring. But neither will Israelis and many American Jews (and indeed most Americans) take comfort in the notion that there was no value in removing Saddam from power.
So where does this tangle leave Jewish voters?
Some polls taken right after Saddam'sÂ capture and Lieberman's harsh attack on Dean are showing a slight revival in Lieberman's fortunes, but it seems doubtful that he can emerge as the nominee of a party whose active base wants a full-out assault on Bush. The most likely Democratic candidates to win unstinting Jewish support are probably Gen. Wesley Clark and Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt, but they must still make credible showings in the upcoming party contests.
Dean continues to move ahead but has not closed the deal. He will have little trouble winning the votes of the most liberal Jews, but moderate, middle-of-the-road Jewish Democrats may require considerable wooing on Middle East issues. His early call for "balance" in the Middle East set off emotional exchanges that finally ended with an eloquent letter from Dean to the Anti-Defamation League outlining his pro-Israel views.
One of the interesting dynamics of the presidential election, as the Washington Post's Laura Blumenfeld noted in early December, is that both Arab Americans and Jews have become slightly unmoored from their traditional partisan leanings by the Iraq War. Many Jews have been gratified by Bush's strong support of Israel and believe that an America strong in world affairs is good for Israel.
Many Arab Americans, a bloc of whom had voted for Bush in 2000 after he promised to be extremely sensitive to their civil liberties, have been outraged by the USA Patriot Act and are ready to vote against Bush in 2004. If, however, Democrats try to win Arab American votes by softening support for Israel, they will lose Jewish voters and perhaps win only a few Arab Americans. But there may be an area of common ground between the two groups, which is opposition to the violations of civil liberties in the USA Patriot Act.
What does the Democratic nominee, whoever that may be, have to do to hold the critical support of Jewish voters in light of Saddam's capture?
For those Jewish voters who are closely attuned to how Israel viewed Saddam's Iraq, it would be worth remembering that there can be some good outcomes from even an ill-advised, dishonestly presented war. The Bush administration's harebrained "neo-cons" may have a ridiculously overblown confidence in their ability to redraw the map of the Middle East around American hegemony, but at least they factor Israel's security into their schemes.
The Democratic nominee must go beyond supporting the peace process, as valuable as that is, to concretely address Israel's long-term and short-term security needs. That candidate must also remember that one can oppose the Bush administration's foreign policy approach without having to become its opposite.
The alternative to hard militaristic unilateralism is not just soft diplomatic multilateralism but a firm, resolute, tough foreign policy that builds on and cherishes historic alliances. Â
Raphael J. Sonenshein is a political science professor at California State University, Fullerton.