Who's Good For The Jews?
10.14.08, 12:01 AM ET
As an Israeli who lives part-time in the U.S., I am always surprised when Americans ask me who the Israelis want to win the U.S. elections. My response is that, though Israel is intensely close to the U.S., many Israelis cannot even identify the Democratic and Republican candidates.
As an item on the Israeli news, the U.S. elections usually rank fourth or fifth, well behind the latest political scandals, multi-car accidents and soccer scores. And yet, the outcome of November's balloting could have profound ramifications for Israelis. The contestants' positions on the peace process, their policies toward Iraq and Iran and their strategies for pursuing the war on terror--all will impact the Jewish State. Depending on who wins, the Middle East--and Israel's place in it--may look substantially different.
That is the conclusion of a study I published in the current edition of The Journal of International Security Affairs, the first comprehensive analysis of the candidates' platforms affecting Israel. My findings were astonishing. Apart from their common commitment to Israel and to the search for peace between it and the Arabs, Barack Obama and John McCain differ significantly on virtually every issue.
McCain, for example, favors transferring the U.S. embassy, situated in Tel Aviv, to Jerusalem--an action certain to antagonize the Arabs--while Obama has not supported the move. Obama, on the other hand, has expressed reservations about Israeli settlement-building in the West Bank, while McCain has overlooked the matter.
McCain has called on the Palestinian Authority to live up to its obligations to clamp down on terror, but Obama has stopped short of making such a demand. Obama has supported Israel's ceasefire with Hamas in Gaza and its peace talks with Syria; McCain opposes both.
McCain insists that the Arab-Israeli conflict cannot be solved without first confronting Islamic radicalism. Obama believes that the Arab-Israeli dispute, though not the root of all Middle Eastern conflicts, is nevertheless a "constant sore" that "infect(s) all of our foreign policy."
The differences between the candidates on a continued American military presence in Iraq and proposed talks with Iran are well-documented. McCain favors the first and opposes the second, and Obama's positions are exactly reversed. Regarding the war on terror, Obama advocates a return to the Clinton-era treatment of terrorists as criminals who should be tried by the justice system. McCain, by contrast, upholds the Bush Doctrine of preemption and the defeat of terror by extra-Constitutional means.
Which of these policies are best for Israel depends on one's definition of best. Some might prefer an America that is even-handed in peace talks, dedicated to achieving a comprehensive Arab-Israeli agreement and open to dialogue with its enemies. Others favor an America that is more sympathetic to Israel in negotiations, committed to fighting Islamic radicalism and ready to act preemptively--unilaterally if necessary--against terror. An America led by McCain or Obama will pursue substantially different courses in the Middle East, impelling Israel down widely divergent paths.
Israelis may not have a say in choosing that direction, though many of their supporters might. In spite of the Republicans' claim to commanding an unprecedented 35% of the Jewish vote, the sizable majority of American Jews will still vote Democratic. Still, a difference of only several percentage points could tip the scales in such key states as Florida and New York with their large Jewish populations.
Paradoxically, the race in those states may be decided by the former Floridians and New Yorkers who now live in Israel but who retain their U.S. citizenship. Mostly religious and politically conservative, these Israeli-Americans are expected to side overwhelmingly with McCain.
Perhaps the question of whom the Israelis want for president should not be so surprising, then, especially when posed to a dual-citizen. Israel may yet exert a small but pivotal influence on the presidential elections. American Jews and Israeli-Americans may, together but indirectly, determine Israel's future.
Michael B. Oren, a visiting professor at the Program for Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, is the author of Power, Faith and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present.