I already bored you with 11 comments on the Republican Jewish Coalition political extravaganza of yesterday (you can read it here – where I also coin the acronym TRJC2OFC). I already explained why one should not be overly impressed with the most predictable attacks on the Obama administration – especially the attacks on Obama’s Israel policy. Having said that, I will now try to make some sense out of it: This was a long event, with all major Republican Presidential candidates speaking (excluding Ron Paul) and all of them trying to electrify the crowd and making promises; overall, an impressive political production. But does it have any meaning? Will it have real impact on Jewish voters, Jewish donors, Jewish swing voters?
Gingrich’s speech was, by far, the most interesting of them all, and the most entertaining, but probably not the most effective. He made two very specific pledges: To move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem two hours after inauguration, and to appoint John Bolton for Secretary of State. The first promise is, well, not exactly new. George W. Bush made the same pledge and changed his mind later. It didn’t prevent him from being considered as one of the friendliest presidents toward Israel ever (my list: Johnson, Bush, Clinton – not necessarily by this order). The second promise was well received among the hardcore Republicans in the room, but has the potential to scare away middle of the road Jewish swing voters. It is a pledge that can easily be portrayed as “extreme” or “radical”, and I’m not sure this is exactly what Jewish voters would like to see in Washington, not even those voters unhappy enough with Obama to consider other options.
Mitt Romney had the most effective performance for four reasons: He was at times blunt and aggressive in his censure of the Obama administration, but kept it all under a thick blanket of moderation. He was a challenger, not a revolutionary. He was not as perky and enjoyable as Gingrich, didn’t seem as passionate about Israel as Perry, didn’t have the ultra-hawkish message of Santorum on Iran, he was just safe and reasonable. If one wants to score rhetorical points against the Obama administration and make the hardcore Jewish Republicans even more convinced that theirs is the Party of real support for Israel – Gingrich would be the choice. If one, though, wants to have a more impressive showing of Jews voting for a Republican candidate – Romney seemed to be the right choice.
Some of Gingrich’s ideas and provocations received applause for good reason. “This argument that it is always Israel’s fault – no matter how bad the other side is – has to stop”, he said. With this, he was capitalizing on the Obama administration’s recent string of questionable comments regarding Israel. Panetta sending the Israeli government back to the “damn” negotiating table (Israel was willing to go back to the table long ago), Clinton making comparisons between Israel and Iran (“Secretary Clinton would talk about discrimination against women in Israel, and then meet with Saudis?”), and the chatty ambassador to Belgium, Howard Gutman, who is now on the way to becoming the new darling of those who like to howl about “censorship” and embrace any stupidity as long as it is aimed at the right target.
Such statements create an opening for Republicans, and put the administration on notice, but they also make the current political climate dangerous for Israel. A polarized climate has the potential of leading voters to one of two possible conclusions: if one agrees with Gingrich (and his friends – they all seemed to be on the same page regarding these incidents), one can’t possibly vote for the Democratic ticket; if one still wants to vote and support the Democratic ticket, as we can safely assume many Jewish voters would, one might find oneself conflicted and having to have second thoughts about supporting an Israel that is against peace negotiations, that is becoming like Iran, and that is contributing to anti-Semitism.
Thus, while the Obama administration might harm itself politically by the recent unhealthy stream of comments by top officials, one should also not underestimate the possible damage to Israel that this continued criticism may cause.