What is the proper pro-Israel litmus test for presidential candidates? And who gets to decide?
That recurring question has already had special relevance for former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, the surprise frontrunner in the 2004 Democratic presidential contest -- the kind of relevance you get with a punch in the solar plexus.
Dean's Democratic rivals are all acutely aware that their turn could come next if they bobble questions about Mideast policy. Not even Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), an Orthodox Jew and avowed Zionist, gets a pass.
President George W. Bush gets a slightly more forgiving test, thanks to the reluctance of lobbyists to criticize an incumbent and the rightward tilt of the pro-Israel leadership.
Litmus test politics are this country's latest gift to the democratic world, and pro-Israel groups are at the head of the class.
To a degree, the exercise is a legitimate and important one that ensures candidates support the major pillars of the U.S.-Israel relationship. Rigid litmus tests -- and vehement reactions against those who don't score top grades -- are ways of preventing drift from the overwhelming pro-Israel consensus in Washington.
But there are risks when individuals and groups with a stake in the ideological wars over Mideast policy succeed in changing the baseline. When litmus tests are used to score ideological points for positions that fall outside the American Jewish mainstream, it can undercut that hard-won support for the Jewish state.
Consider the case of Dean, who touched off a feeding frenzy last month when he said he would favor a more "evenhanded" U.S. approach to the Mideast crisis and that this country should not "take sides" in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
That triggered a tidal wave of criticism. Even after multiple mea culpas and weeks of damage control, some Jewish politicos say Dean could have a hard time making amends with Jewish voters and contributors.
But did Dean really suggest a fundamental shift in U.S. Mideast policy, as several of his Democratic rivals, including Lieberman, suggested?
Or was it, as Dean explained, a simple verbal gaffe, the result of his lack of experience -- worthy of a slapped wrist, maybe, but not a public flogging?
And who gets to decide what constitutes a failing grade? Is it groups that represent the Jewish majority that continue to support a strong U.S. mediation role in peace negotiations, Palestinian statehood and an eventual return of Gaza and the West Bank?
Or is it that vocal Jewish minority that believes land-for-peace negotiations are sure suicide for Israel, that the settlers are the truest Zionists and who worry that Ariel Sharon is a closet appeaser? The ongoing reaction to Dean suggests it was the latter.
In today's political climate, the pro-Israel litmus test increasingly reflects the views of those pro-Israel leaders who are partisan partners of the Sharon government or even further to the right. That means the political standards are shaped by those with very different views than most American Jews.
The bitter litmus test process hurts Israel in another way: it guarantees that the democratic system, which Americans view as the best answer to any vexing problem, will not contribute to a solution of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis.
Candidates aren't pressed to understand the issue and propose creative new solutions, but to parrot back slogans and keep their mouths shut about everything else.
Every candidate who wishes to get a passing grade must speak about maintaining Israel's "qualitative" military edge, and promise to instantly move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, as President Bush did, even though everybody knows it won't happen.
Any candidate who seems at all critical of the Israeli government is treated as the next George McGovern if a Democrat, the next George H.W. Bush if a Republican. And, especially for challengers, a little slip is treated as harshly as recommending Yasser Arafat for a second Nobel Peace Prize.
Nobody expects Howard Dean to come up with creative new ideas for bringing an end to Arab-Israeli violence. Indeed, he would be severely punished by the cadre of pro-Israel opinion leaders if he were to do so.
If he is elected, it will be without any detailed information about what his Mideast policies are likely to be, because the pro-Israel community has put such a strong disincentive on speaking openly about the region. Ditto all his Democratic rivals.
It's also true that litmus tests are applied differently for challengers and incumbents.
Bush was the first president to openly campaign for Palestinian statehood, and he quickly violated his campaign promise to move the embassy. He has called for removing settlements and threatened to cut loan guarantees to Israel.
But only the far right labels him anti-Israel. Dean's comparatively mild comments, on the other hand, fatally tainted him in the eyes of some important Jewish politicos.
Pro-Israel leaders routinely give incumbents more latitude for violating pro-Israel dogma than challengers. But the disparity also reflects a pro-Israel leadership cadre that has been gradually moving into the Republican orbit, even as most Jewish voters stay resolutely Democratic.
The pro-Israel lobby has done a great job of building and maintaining wall-to-wall support for the Jewish state. But that effort is jeopardized when harsh, unforgiving litmus tests with an unrepresentative ideological charge become the norm.
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