By Howard Sumka, Ph.D.
Special to WJW
One of the sadder aspects of this largely dispiriting presidential election campaign has been the effort by Republicans, in close harmony with Prime Minister Netanyahu, to make Israel a wedge issue. A recent plaintive appeal for Jews to vote for Governor Romney (WJW, October 4, 2012) encapsulates the Republican position. The arguments are worth a closer look. Their arguments are based largely on distortions of fact and on a "no daylight" foreign policy principal that most Americans - Jews and Gentiles - should reject. In the end, to coin a phrase, this will not be good for the Jews, not those of us in America nor our kin in Israel.
The charge that President Obama "purposely put daylight" between the U.S. and Israel stems from his meeting with Jewish leaders in 2009. Exactly what words he used is not known, but he did convey that U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East cannot be knee-jerk support (my words) for Israel's policy if we are to have any credibility with Arab states. And Obama reportedly argued that eight years of the Bush Administration's no daylight brought us no closer to peace. The U.S.'s $3 billion a year assistance program, its extensive military support, and its guarantees of Israel's Quantitative Military Edge, all Obama policies, have made U.S.- Israel cooperation stronger than ever; so says Defense Minister Barak. Few Americans object to that. We share values and have common foreign policy and strategic goals. That doesn't suggest the U.S. abrogate its foreign policy decisions.
Many American Jews (I am among them) believe Israel's policy and actions toward the Palestinians are wrong-headed. Apart from the morality of denying human and civil rights, they undermine Israel's long-term interests and seriously threaten its future as a Jewish, democratic state. On this issue, we have seen Romney flapping like a spinnaker in a hurricane. In his recent visit to Jerusalem, he insulted Palestinian culture as not geared toward economic growth and development. Later he was secretly recorded saying that Palestinians don't want peace and that he would just "kick the ball down the field." But in his foreign policy speech on October 8, he stood solidly for a "democratic, prosperous Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security" with Israel - the mantra of the George W. Bush era, which that administration supported only begrudgingly and never at the price of publicly revealing daylight between us and Israel, no matter how much it disagreed over policy. Romney's seesawing should make us wonder what he'd really do if he gets elected. That could depend on which adviser gets to him last.
President Obama was chided by some Republicans for failing to meet with Netanyahu in New York last month. Even if he could have carved the time out of his campaign and presidential schedules, why should he have? As far as I know, Netanyahu is the only head of state, head of a client state, no less, who has had the audacity to conspire with the opposition to embarrass the U.S. President. Then he added insult to injury by lecturing him before the press on U.S. policy. Why would Obama want to do that again? Surely the long one-on-one phone call they had after Netanyahu's UNGA speech was enough to cover their issues, and privately, as they should be. Underlying some of the Republican criticism is angst about Iran. There is strong opinion in the American defense and security establishments that a military attack on Iran would be ineffective and counterproductive. The fact is that the Obama Administration has done more to contain Iran than Bush did in his eight years in office. Sanctions are taking effect; Americans have no taste for another war of choice in the Middle East and it would be awful for the American Jewish community to be blamed for one with Iran, one which we know from experience will not go as we hope at the outset.
In that same appeal in the WJW's October Opinion Section, Jewish Democrats and independents were admonished to support Romney so "the Jewish community will no longer be ignored or taken for granted." I doubt there has been a single instance since 1948 in which an American president took the Jewish community for granted, not even Eisenhower, who forced Israel to back off on Suez in 1956, or Bush 41, who froze loan guarantees over the settlements issue. I doubt there is any risk of that happening today. A worse risk would be to create a public perception that anti-Semites would love to take advantage of: That our foreign policy is dictated from Israel and that the loyalty of American Jews is first to Israel and then to America. In fact, Jews voted overwhelmingly for Obama in 2008 because his values coincide with deeply embedded Jewish values about social equity, human rights, and fairness. That is as it should be.
Howard J. Sumka, Ph.D. was a member of the USAID Senior Foreign Service, Rank of Minister Counselor (ret.)