Why Obama Is Better for Israel Than Romney Is

I'm in a transit lounge in Paris, heading for hotter places, but I wanted to put down a few thoughts about the presidential election and the Middle East. Forgive the choppiness; I have to get on a plane shortly. Maybe I'll write more when I arrive. Or maybe I'll just collapse in an Ambien heap.

Last week, in a dialogue with the sometimes-dyspeptic but always thoughtful Yossi Klein Halevi, I argued that Israel's bipartisan support in America is under threat:

If Romney wins, and if Benjamin Netanyahu stays in power in Israel, I can almost guarantee you that you will see a melting away of whatever Democratic support there is for tough action against Iran, and a melting away of whatever liberal support there still remains for a strong America-Israel relationship. American support is a pillar of Israeli national security policy. Israel cannot thrive - and maybe it can't survive - in a Middle East dominated by a nuclear Iran. But it will also have difficulty surviving without American support, and I'm telling you, medium- to long-term, Israel could be in trouble in the U.S.

I believe I was somewhat hyperbolic in asserting that a "melting away" of liberal support for a strong America-Israel relationship is almost guaranteed (Yossi can get me going), but I think the underlying truth remains: Republicans have had a good deal of success turning Israel into a partisan issue, mainly by misrepresenting President Obama's record (but also helped by certain Obama missteps), and if they continue to press their case, many Democrats will find supporting Israel distasteful -- they will lump supporters of Israel in the same category they reserve for climate-change-denying anti-choice Obamacare haters. This would be very dangerous for Israel.

Maybe it's all going to happen anyway: Israel, after all, is moving rightward (it has a foreign minister, the second-most powerful man in Israel, who would be a more appropriate office-holder in Putin's Russia than in a liberal democracy), and there is no hope on the horizon for a two-state solution. Forty-five years of occupation has had a cumulative effect on Israel's reputation among progressive-minded people. The narrative long-ago shifted -- when I was a kid, the Israel Day parade in New York was a carnival of liberalism: unions and civil rights groups and secular people of all shapes and colors, standing up for plucky little Israel. Now, it's more and more an Orthodox parade, and support for Israel is strongest among conservative evangelicals, many of whom do not know actual Jews but have a theological vision of what Jews are, and what they should be.

A few months ago, I interviewed my friend Kurt Andersen, the novelist, here on Goldblog, about his latest book, "True Believers," in which Israel plays a small but highly symbolic role. In 1967, Kurt's very not-Jewish family in Nebraska threw a party to celebrate Israel's victory in the Six-Day War. The feeling that inspired that party, he said, has dissipated:

For sure Israel remains vastly more popular among Americans than any country in its part of the world. But that's a very low bar. A few years ago at a swank Manhattan dinner party I got in a serious shouting argument with a Brit who'd said that Israel was a worse country than its neighbors. Americans have not yet become reflexive Euro-style anti-Israelites in significant numbers. But the country has gone in my lifetime from being our bestest non-European buddy, our spunky amazing inspiring heroic pal, to being...a friend, a friend who's in a tragic and terrible tight spot, a friend most Americans these days would prefer not to think too much about.

I think it is true that Israel remains popular across a large swath of America. I also think it's true that this could change, as it already has among many liberals, including among some liberal American Jews. Barack Obama, who is pro-Israel -- let me repeat that: Barack Obama, who is pro-Israel -- has done a lousy job managing the peace process, and a lousy job understanding, and manipulating, Benjamin Netanyahu, but he has done a stellar job defending Israel's fundamental rights against many foes -- including from the podium of the U.N. General Assembly --  and he has done an outstanding job making sure that Israel receives the highest-level military cooperation with the U.S. possible. Mainly what he has done is try, quite strenuously, to remind Democrats why their party has traditionally supported a strong U.S.-Israel relationship.

I don't doubt that Mitt Romney is devoted to Israel, and I don't doubt that he's committed, in his own mind, to stopping Iran from gaining nuclear weapons. But the question here has to do with the type of devotion he expresses, and with his ability to actually stop Iran. I've argued before that Romney would face some obvious problems in the crisis with Iran: His foreign policy team will be inexperienced; as a Republican, he would face extraordinary opposition from a revitalized anti-war movement and from Democrats in Congress; he himself doesn't want to gain the reputation George W, Bush gained for himself, and so on. Obama, as I have argued in this space, over and over again, is in a better position to carry through his promise to keep Iran from going nuclear, and he has proven he is cold-blooded enough to use force if he thinks American interests are at stake. As he has said, over and over again (including in this space), he believes it is a "profound" American national security interest to stop Iran. In the matter of Iran, I believe Israel is better off with Obama in the presidency.

There is one wrinkle: I've also argued that the Iranians may be more apt to believe that Romney is crazy enough to attack them, and so they might be more apt to negotiate an end to their nuclear program for fear of a Republican president (there's not much evidence available to suggest that the regime is frightened of Obama, in part because Obama has been undermined on occasion by members of his own administration who have publicly labeled the military option a terrible idea. It may be a terrible idea, but it doesn't help Obama's negotiating position when his own employees say so publicly). One reason to discount a potential Romney-is-crazy-like-Nixon ploy is that I have serious doubts about whether the Iranian regime will give up its nuclear program, no matter who is president.

One final-for-now thought, that runs counter to a certain prevailing narrative about what it means to be pro-Israel. I'll pose it as a question: Is an American president "pro-Israel" if he neglects to mention to the Israeli leadership his worries about Israel's future as a Jewish-majority democracy, in which freedom of speech is sacred and the rights of minorities are protected? Is it "pro-Israel" to not point out the various demographic, moral and security challenges presented to Israel by the continued expansion of settlements on the West Bank? Obama did a poor job, in his first term, helping Israelis analyze their existential dilemmas, save the existential dilemma posed by an Iranian bomb. But if wins, he could try to re-set (to borrow a term) his relationship with Netanyahu, and he could raise the sort of questions privately that need to be asked. (I'll address the issue of whether putting public daylight between Israel and America is a good, or bad, thing, from an instrumental, not moral, point of view, in a later post).

If I thought that Romney were willing to ask these hard questions about Israel's future, I would be more apt to suggest that he would be good for Israel. But there's no proof that he would engage Netanyahu in this sort of dialogue.  Being pro-Israel means many contradictory things these days: Standing against Iran's annihilationist impulses; defending the justice of the Jewish national liberation movement; thwarting the jihadist desire to hurt Jews. But it also means finding a way to help Israel think through the consequences of its policies on the West Bank, before it is too late. The truth is, Israel isn't best served by either Romney or Obama. What it needs is a concentrated dose of Bill Clinton.