Thinking Aloud: “Evaluating” US-Israeli Relations?

Mar. 25, 2015 by Darius

Following Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s comments towards the end of his re-election campaign that there would not be a Palestinian state as long as he is prime minister, the Obama administration has directed plenty of criticism Netanyahu’s way.  Prospective 2016 US Presidential candidates are finding themselves forced to take a position on this rift.

Within the Republican Party, it seems that even the smallest and most rational criticism of Israel is now anathema.  Former Secretary of State under George H.W. Bush, James Baker III, said in a speech to the liberal Jewish organization J Street that Netanyahu had made “diplomatic missteps” and engaged in unhelpful politicking.  Coming from the person who almost single-handedly dragged the Israeli government and Palestinian delegations together at the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference, one would think these criticisms, if you can call them that, are reasonable, politic, and delivered by someone with the context to appreciate the significance.  Republican presidential hopeful Jeb Bush, though, put aside his respect for his father’s former right-hand man to distance himself from the slightest criticism of Netanyahu.  Jeb Bush’s spokesperson quickly reassured the world that Bush’s support for Netanyahu is “unwavering.”

However, Bush’s defense of Netanyahu was completely blown away by that of Texas Senator Ted Cruz.  In the speech in which he announced his candidacy, Cruz laid into Obama for “boycotting” Netanyahu, accused Obama of trying to undermine Netanyahu’s re-election campaign, and sucked up to Netanyahu’s capabilities as a leader for good measure.

On the Democratic side, things are a bit more complicated.  Obviously, Obama’s Democratic administration has made its feelings on Netanyahu’s latest comments crystal clear.  However, Hillary Clinton, widely assumed to be the main Democratic candidate, has traditionally taken a more hawkish and conservative position on foreign policy than Obama.  More important, the Democratic Party, and particularly Hillary’s husband, Bill, consider Jewish Americans to be a core constituency.  There is certainly more flexibility on the Democratic side of the aisle, though: many American Jews are no friends of Netanyahu and, in any case, polling has shown that American Jews put less emphasis on US-Israel relations in choosing whom to vote for than many assume.

Other than the usual partisan need to stake out one’s space in the political arena, the responses to any perceived criticism of Israel reflect what has become a fundamental divide between the views of Republican primary voters and the views of Democratic primary voters.  About 40% of Republican primary voters are born-again or Evangelical Christians, a group that feels a strong religious duty to support Israel.  In fact, recent polling data shows that born-again or Evangelical Christians are more likely to feel a religious obligation to support Israel than American Jews do (see https://notwhatyoumightthink.wordpress.com/2014/12/13/thinking-aloud-american-public-attitudes-toward-the-israeli-palestinian-conflict-part-ii/)  As more Republicans announce their Presidential ambitions, it is probably safe to assume they will have an informal contest to see how pro-Israel they can get.

Among Democratic primary voters, on the other hand, human rights concerns are more central to their views on Israel and US policy towards Israel.  (See, for example, https://notwhatyoumightthink.wordpress.com/2014/12/14/thinking-aloud-american-public-attitudes-toward-the-israeli-palestinian-conflict-part-iii/) This gives any Democratic Presidential candidates far more leeway in crafting a position on US-Israel policy in general or on Benjamin Netanyahu’s leadership specifically.

For the time being, though, we can expect one Republican aspirant after another to pledge his fealty to Mr. Netanyahu, right or wrong.

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