Why Israel Plays Such a Big Role in U.S. Presidential Races

Republican candidates are striving to show their love for Israel, but it's about more than just the Jewish vote

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Barack Obama meets Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the United Nations in September 2011 / Reuters

In American presidential politics, wrapping yourself in the Israeli flag is a no-brainer. Stalwart support for Israel is important for many American-Jewish voters, an important source of campaign donations, and a potential swing vote in key battleground states such as Florida, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. Fealty to Israel plays well with evangelical Christians who back the Jewish state largely out of theology, and who can make the difference in early-voting states like Iowa and South Carolina. Strong backing of Israel is viewed as a litmus test for powerful lobby groups in Washington.

Especially for a field of Republican presidential candidates who are almost uniformly attacking Barack Obama's foreign policy from the neoconservative right, the temptation has proven irresistible to use the president's failed attempts at peacemaking in the Middle East, and frosty relations with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as a cudgel.

"Three years in office and [President Obama] hasn't found time to visit Israel, our friend, our ally, the nation in the region that shares our values," said Mitt Romney, who often charges Obama with "throwing Israel under the bus," speaking on Wednesday at a Republican Jewish Coalition forum in Washington attended by all six GOP presidential candidates. "Over the last three years, Obama has instead chastened Israel," the former Massachusetts governor said.

Taken together, the Republican candidates' critique of the administration's relations with Israel has been scathing. The administration has "turned a blind eye towards radicals" and appeased "every radical Islamist," Rick Santorum told the forum. Obama should fire his ambassador to Belgium for recently suggesting that some anti-Semitism stems from tensions between Israel and the Palestinians, and chastise Defense Secretary Leon Panetta for urging Israel to "get to the damn [negotiating] table" [Romney and Gingrich in recent days]. The administration was "naïve, misguided, arrogant" [Rick Perry] for suggesting last May that the starting point for negotiations should be the pre-1967 borders with agreed upon land swaps. Obama was "disgusting" and disgraceful" for seeming to agree with French President Nicolas Sarkozy's overheard claim that Netanyahu is a "liar" [Gingrich again].

The Obama campaign staunchly defended the president's record toward Israel. In an interview, Alan Solow, a longtime Obama supporter and the former chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, defended the president's record on Israel and pointed to statements from Israeli officials saying the relationship between the United States and Israel is as strong as or even stronger than it's ever been.

He also denied that Obama has "emboldened Palestinian hard-liners," as Romney said, or "done nothing but appease" Islamists, thugs and hooligans, as Santorum said. "To suggest that he's some kind of appeaser is preposterous," Solow said.

Solow accused the Republican presidential candidates of using catchphrases instead of proposing solutions to the problems in the Middle East. "They present no vision of their own," Solow said.

Nuance is often the first casualty in the bumper-sticker exchanges of heated political campaigns, and few foreign-policy issues are more nuanced or filled with linguistic landmines than the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Certainly, Obama himself has engaged in his own hyperbole, claiming at a fundraiser last week, for instance, that "this administration has done more in terms of the security of Israel than any previous administration."

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James Kitfield is a senior correspondent for National Journal.

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