The Republicans & Netanyahu
Published in Gulf News, 1 June 2011
By Gordon Robison, Special to Gulf News
American politicians love Israel. We all know that. This column is not about the quality or breadth of debate in America about Israel, the Palestinians and whatever may remain of the Middle East peace process.
It is about the rather extraordinary spectacle of the last 10 days, during which the Republicans took the genuinely unprecedented step of lining up en masse behind a foreign leader in opposition to the president of the US. The US is a political country. Elections are inherently partisan. Differences over foreign policy are part of every presidential campaign.
But it is a big leap from these sort of honest — even heated — debates over policy to the events we saw surrounding Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's recent visit to Washington, with the GOP using a quite willing Netanyahu as the point man in their ongoing war against anything Barack Obama is for.
This was done, not surprisingly, with an eye on next year's presidential election.
For half a century, the two most reliably Democratic constituencies in American elections have been African-Americans and Jews. The Jewish vote has long been particularly important to Democrats because while Jews make up only 2.5 per cent of the overall US population they represent a large share of the vote in certain key places such as New York (a state Democrats must carry to have any hope of winning the presidency) and Florida (a swing state when you include the Jewish vote, a pretty solidly Republican state without it).
Moreover, in a country where anything over 50 per cent turnout is considered really good in a presidential election, Jewish-Americans have electoral power — and the attention of politicians — precisely because an overwhelming percentage of them actually do go to the polls and vote.
Political professionals have been aware of these facts for decades. One of the reasons why George W. Bush aligned himself so closely with the Israeli right was because his top political adviser, Karl Rove, believed strongly that doing so would help swing Jewish votes to the GOP.
The reason the Republicans have focused their attention on Likud and other right-wing elements of Israeli politics is partly for the wholly practical reason that the political right has been ascendant in Israel for the last decade. It also, however, has roots in US domestic politics, particularly the growing power within the Republican Party of evangelical Christians who see the creation of Israel as a sign from God, one designed to hasten the second coming of Jesus and, by implication, the end of the world.
In the wake of Obama's recent (mostly unremarkable, at least on Israeli-Palestinian issues) speech on Middle East policy, the reaction at home was as predictably partisan as it would have been had he given a speech about health care or the federal budget.
Republican presidential candidates tripped over one another in an effort to see who could denounce Obama in the strongest terms (though some, like the oddly-popular pizza magnate Herman Cain and, perhaps inevitably, Sarah Palin did so in ways that mainly highlighted their own ignorance).
Congressmen and Senators can, and do, have opinions on the president's policies, and are rarely shy about voicing them. There is nothing wrong with that. But giving a speech bashing the president's policies is one thing. Inviting a foreign leader to come give such a speech to the Congress itself is something else entirely.
There is a long history of foreign leaders addressing Congress, but it is also part of the tradition that such speeches are usually warm-and-fuzzy paeans to US friendship with the speaker's country, or thanks for assistance rendered (think: Vaclav Havel in the wake of the Eastern European revolutions). They have never, until now, involved a conscious attempt to turn foreign policy into a wedge issue.
The protocol for members of Congress used to be: if you don't like the president's policies complain as openly and as loudly as you want: but don't do it publicly to a foreign leader, and don't do it on foreign soil.
Throwing out that time-honoured custom may win the Republicans some votes next year, but it sets a terrible precedent that I fear Americans and Middle Easterners alike are destined to regret.
Gordon Robison teaches political science at the University of Vermont.