U.S. Presidential Politics and the Israeli/Palestinian Conflict

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Middle East In Focus

With the Republican presidential primaries weeks away it is perhaps inevitable that some of the statements of the GOP presidential candidates would come under the microscope from commentators in the Middle East. That some of those statements amount to the denial of the existence of whole peoples, as former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich insisted, makes it even less likely they will be ignored. For some within Israel, statements by a number of U.S. officials have caused concern about the direction of U.S. policy vis-à-vis Israel.

Regarding the latter, the Jerusalem Post editorial calls them ‘scary,’ adding “there has been a truly frightening articulation of the U.S. administration’s perception of Israel vis-à-vis the Muslim world. On Friday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta essentially blamed Israel for its own “increasing isolation,” urging the Jewish state to reach out to its neighbors….Just two days before Panetta made his disturbing comments, US Ambassador to Belgium Howard Gutman, the son of a Polish Holocaust survivor, basically blamed Israel for Muslim anti-Semitism in Europe….The sorts of views held by Gutman and Panetta are, unfortunately, not uncommon. But it is more than just unfortunate when these views are held by men who have a critical influence on US foreign policy. It is downright scary, especially in light of Israel’s growing need for American support as radical changes sweep the region.”

Another source of concern to some commentators in Israel is the increasing frequency with which the sustainability of U.S. aid to Israel has begun to be questioned. Writing for the Israeli business daily Globes, Ran Dagoni notes: “U.S. aid to Israel is no longer sacred….U.S. military aid to Israel is no longer a fixed point in relations between the two countries…. the topic is starting to come up more frequently in public discussions in the U.S. One of the first harbingers of change was Washington Post columnist Walter Pincus who called on the U.S. government to reexamine its aid policy to Israel….The Capitol Hill source also says that he will be surprised if aid for the missile defense programs is cut, but adds that it can no longer be expected that the level of support will rise every year. ‘That won’t happen anymore. The politicians will have to spend more and more precious political capital to justify raising the aid.’ According to him, the most worrying thing for the supporters of aid is that it has lost its sanctity.”

That the approaching U.S. presidential elections are beginning to play an important role in Israeli political calculations is evident in Benyamin Netanyahu’s decision to move up Likud primaries. As Haaretz’s Yoel Marcus explains, “While commentators are trying to decide how Bibi will extricate himself from the problems in our region, he surprises everyone with his decision to move up the Likud primaries to January 31….I wouldn’t be surprised if he decided to move up the primaries as a first step to moving up the elections. When U.S. President Barack Obama lobbies in order to be elected to a second term, he will need the Jewish vote — in other words, to be on the good side of the person who is governing Israel now as well….Netanyahu is counting on the fact that Obama will be a lame duck next year, and assumes that, in that case, the Jewish vote will be worth its weight in gold.”

For some though, the GOP presidential primaries have become more than a foil or leverage for Netanyahu. In an op-ed on Jerusalem Post, Ilan Manor playfully asserts, “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is in love. Not with a person or an idea, but with a party. The Republican Party. Ever since he took office, Netanyahu has found himself attracted to the GOP. Now, the attraction has blossomed into love. The prime minister has been swept off his feet by the parade of dashing Republican candidates courting him and offering to take care of Iran, an issue he has struggled with for more than two years.”

No wonder, then, that some among the political right in Israel are beginning to rank the Republican candidates to see who is best for Israel. Dovid Efune does just that in an article for the conservative Arutz Sheva, where he ranks Ron Paul as the least Israel-friendly candidate and Rick Santorum as the staunchest ally of the state of Israel. Regarding Paul’s views, Efune claims that “[w]hilst claiming to be non-interventionist on the issue, he has routinely adopted Arab talking points on Israel, even comparing Gaza to ‘a concentration camp.’ His Isolationist mantra may appeal to fiscal conservatives, but in the real world its implementation would create a global power vacuum that would likely be filled by supporters of Israel’s enemies.”

Meanwhile, Newt Gingrich, whom Efune ranks as the third most Israel-friendly GOP candidate, has made his own attempts to shore up Israeli support, financial and otherwise. The Forward’s Nathan Guttman and Josh Nathan-Kazis report on Gingrich’s alliances with wealthy Israeli donors: “In the battle for the Republican pro-Israel vote…. he has something potentially more powerful: the support of one of Benjamin Netanyahu’s most significant American backers, and a relationship with the Israeli prime minister himself that stretches back decades. Billionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, one of the wealthiest men in the world and a major donor to Jewish and conservative causes, is widely known as a Netanyahu stalwart. Less well known are his equally close ties to Gingrich, to whom he has been a major giver in recent years.”

Gingrich has also been in the news recently for his front-runner status in the GOP presidential race and his controversial statements regarding the Palestinian people. The latter has drawn condemnation from many outside of Israel. The Palestinian news site Ma’an sums up the Palestinian reaction: “Gingrich’s remarks [are] ‘demeaning and ridiculous’…. A top US presidential hopeful’s denial of the Palestinian people’s existence reflects a dark and racist worldview, Palestinian officials said Saturday. The prime minister in Ramallah urged Newt Gingrich to apologize to the Palestinian people, after Gingrich called them ‘an invented Palestinian people who are in fact Arabs.’…Other Palestinian officials were equally incensed. Tayseer Khalid, a senior leader of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, called on both parties in the United States to avoid taking sides in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.”

The Jordanian daily Jordan Times notes a sense of déjà vu in its editorial: “It is that time of the year when U.S. presidential candidates trip over each other to prove loyalty to Israel….The Jewish vote constitutes only 4 per cent of the U.S. electorate, and more than 70 per cent of Jews voted for President Barack Obama in the last elections, yet Republican candidates are shamelessly courting Israel….Are these candidates so bankrupt that they seek to occupy the highest post in the U.S. by being politically and historically incorrect? Aren’t they capable of coming up with constructive arguments to attain their political ambitions?”

The Gulf News editorial believes that “Gingrich’s views reveal his ignorance…. All too often in the world of politics there are events and statements that provide a glimpse into the thinking of politicians and those running for office….If Gingrich was trying to achieve any major political gain with such a statement, it can only be described as a foolish idea. Gaining the votes of the American Jewish community does not allow any candidate or politician to deny outright the rights of any given people. If the Palestinian people are indeed ‘invented’, then Gingrich should also accept the argument that the American people are, arguably, also ‘invented’. If Palestinians are ‘invented’, then the same should hold true for Americans as well.”

According to The National’s Afshin Molavi, “What makes this statement so breathtaking is the ahistorical nature of the argument combined with a fundamental misreading of modern nations….Mr. Gingrich is mixing up nations and peoples. Nations are always “invented”. Peoples are not….Mr. Gingrich’s statements are all the more troubling since they come from an American who aspires to the highest office in the land, a land (a nation, to be exact) that grew from a peoples’ desire for freedom from a foreign colonial power….Mr. Gingrich is not alone. The Republican candidates, with the exception of Ron Paul, have perfected pandering to Israel. It is a reality of Republican elections: to win primaries, they must appeal to evangelical Christians for whom ‘defense’ of Israel is a litmus test.”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: http://mepc.org/articles-commentary/articles-hub. Comments and feedback are welcome at info@mepc.org.

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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