“President Obama has thrown allies like Israel under the bus.” That’s what Mitt Romney, Republican candidate for president, said in the high-profile speech accepting his party’s nomination on Aug. 30, repeating a slang phrase for sacrificing a friend for selfish reasons that he had deployed before, for example in May 2011 and January 2012. This criticism of Barack Obama fits a persistent Republican critique. Specifically, several other recent presidential candidates used or endorsed the same “bus” formulation vis-à-vis Obama and Israel, including Herman Cain in May 2011, Rick Perry in September 2011, Newt Gingrich in January 2012 and Rick Santorum in February 2012.
These Republican attacks on Obama’s relations with Israel have several important implications for U.S. foreign policy.
First, out of the many Middle East-related issues, Israel and Israel alone, retains a permanent role in U.S. electoral politics, influencing how a significant number of voters — not just Jews but also Arabs, Muslims, Evangelical Christians, conservatives and liberals — vote for president.
Second, attitudes toward Israel serve as a proxy for views toward other Middle Eastern issues: If I know your views on Israel, I have a good idea about your thinking on such topics as energy policy, Islamism, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, AKP-led Turkey, the Iranian nuclear buildup, intervention in Libya, the Mohamed Morsi presidency in Egypt and the Syrian civil war.
Third, the Republican criticism of Obama points to a sea change in what determines attitudes toward Israel. Religion was once the key, with Jews the ardent Zionists and Christians less engaged. Today, in contrast, the determining factor is political outlook. To discern someone’s views on Israel, the best question to ask is not, “What is your religion?” but, “Who do you want for president?” As a rule, conservatives feel more warmly toward Israel and liberals more coolly. Polls show conservative Republicans to be the most ardent Zionists, followed by Republicans in general, followed by independents, Democrats and, lastly, liberal Democrats. Yes, Ed Koch, the former mayor of New York City, also said, in September 2011, that Obama “threw Israel under the bus,” but Koch, now 87, represents the fading old guard of the Democratic Party. The difference between the parties in the Arab-Israeli conflict is becoming as deep as their differences on the economy or on cultural issues.
Fourth, as Israel increasingly becomes an issue dividing Democrats from Republicans, I predict a reduction of the bipartisan support for Israel that has provided Israel a unique status in U.S. politics and sustained organizations like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. I also predict that Romney and Paul Ryan, as mainstream conservatives, will head an administration that will be the warmest ever to Israel, far surpassing the administrations of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Contrarily, should Obama be re-elected, the coldest treatment of Israel ever by a U.S. president will follow.
Obama’s constipated record of the past three and a half years vis-à-vis Israel on such topics as the Palestinians and Iran leads to this conclusion; but so does what we know about his record before he entered high electoral politics in 2004, especially his associations with radical anti-Zionists.
For example, Obama worshipfully listened to Edward Said in May 1998 and sat quietly by at a going-away party in 2003 for former PLO flack Rashid Khalidi as Israel was accused of terrorism against Palestinians. (In contrast, Romney has been friends with Benjamin Netanyahu since 1976.)
Also revealing is what Ali Abunimah, a Chicago-based anti-Israel extremist, wrote about his last conversation with Obama in early 2004, as the latter was in the midst of a primary campaign for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate. Abunimah wrote that Obama warmly greeted him and then added, “Hey, I’m sorry I haven’t said more about Palestine right now, but we are in a tough primary race. I’m hoping when things calm down I can be more upfront.” More: referring to Abunimah’s attacks on Israel in the Chicago Tribune and elsewhere, Obama encouraged him with, “Keep up the good work!”
When one puts this in the context of what Obama said off-mike to then-Russian president Dmitry Medvedev in March 2012 (“This is my last election. And after my election, I have more flexibility”), it would be wise to assume that, if Obama wins on Nov. 6, things will “calm down” for him and he finally can “be more upfront” about so-called Palestine. Then Israel’s troubles will really begin.