Israel had a starring role in the third and final presidential debate last Tuesday night. How big? China, a country of 1 billion people to which America owes $1 trillion and whose military and economic decisions will affect us for years to come, rated 32 mentions. Israel, a country of 6 million people that receives $3 billion in aid from America each year, received even more — 34 mentions, to be exact. The European Union, Latin America, Eastern Europe — in short, most of the rest of the world — got 18 mentions, total. Imagine a New Yorker cover showing a map of the world according to the candidates: There are only three countries — the U.S., China and Israel — with Israel slightly larger than the other two.
It would be flattering, all this attention for one little Jewish state, if it also weren’t so dangerous. The special attention is a direct consequence of what happens when Israel is used as a political wedge issue, a way to peel Jewish voters away from Democratic candidates.
The danger is that instead of enjoying the broad, bipartisan support it has long received, Israel will come to be seen as a one-party cause. In a country that’s frequently split down the middle, that can’t bode well for Israel.
As I watched the debate unfold — and the inexorable Israel question arise — I fantasized the way I’d like to see these candidates, and all future ones, handle it. What follows is that fantasy, in transcript:
Bob Schieffer: Would either of you be willing to declare that an attack on Israel is an attack on the United States, which of course is the same promise that we give to our close allies like Japan?
President Barack Obama: You know, Bob, let me stop you there. Of course, I’m tempted to knock that softball straight over Miami Beach clear to Cleveland Heights. But I’m not going to do it.
Because this is what will most certainly happen. I will use the opportunity to boast about how much my administration has done for Israel, and about how much Israel means to me; I might even hum a few bars of “Hatikvah.” And then Gov. Romney will get his two minutes, and he will profess his love and support for Israel, and then accuse me of turning my back on Israel, of putting “daylight” between America and Israel. And then in my rebuttal I’ll call into question his ability to protect Israel, and our parties and our defenders will join in the accusations and defamations, and in all the noise, the American people will lose sight of the most important, essential truth: America’s support for Israel is bipartisan. It is good for America, and good for the world. And it is unshakeable. That is true whether you elect me or Gov. Romney, a Democrat or Republican.
Schieffer: Gov. Romney, your rebuttal?
Gov. Mitt Romney: I agree with the president. In fact, if you noticed when we walked out on stage to your applause, we exchanged a few words and smiled. I said to the president, “I won’t take the Israel bait,” and he said, “I’m with you there.”
We want to set an example for the American people that some issues are too important to politicize, and Israel is one of them. After all, what candidates argue over which party supports England more, or which of us has Brazil’s back? Earlier this year, the Senate passed the bipartisan United States-Israel Enhanced Security Cooperation Act. The vote was 100-1. In August, the House voted to increase sanctions under the Iran Sanctions Act, by a vote of 421-6. And you expect me to stand here and accuse the leader of his party of endangering Israel? I guess what I’m saying, Bob, is the president and I want every American to know there is no daylight between Republican and Democratic support for Israel.
Obama: Look, this doesn’t mean the governor and I will approach every problem in the same way. And it doesn’t mean that we will agree with Israel on every issue. Anyone who tells you that both Republican and Democratic presidents haven’t had strong disagreements with Israel over the years hasn’t cracked a history book. Ronald Reagan fought with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin over the Lebanon war; Richard Nixon threatened sanctions, and George H.W. Bush denied Israel loan guarantees because of settlements. And don’t get me started on Jimmy Carter. We want a strong, secure Israel living in peace with its neighbors. Sometimes we may even disagree with whatever Israeli government is in power over how best to achieve that — but our genuine commitment and support does not waver.
Romney: That’s why we have both stressed the need for the Israelis and Palestinians to come to some kind of agreement. Presidents of both parties have tried — and failed — to broker an accord, not because we like the room service at the King David, but because we understand the status quo is unsustainable and a peaceful, just resolution is in Israel’s strategic interest.
Schieffer: Outstanding, gentlemen. In that spirit, can I suggest you also pledge to find bipartisan solutions to our country’s economic problems?
Obama: Bob, don’t push your luck.