Israel eyes the '08 Democrats

Many in Israel are scrutinizing the U.S. presidential race -- and potentially key differences on security among Obama, Clinton and Edwards.

Published August 16, 2007 11:32AM (EDT)

For about a year now, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz has been running a regular feature called the Israel Factor, which asks a panel of Israeli academics and former government officials to rank the 2008 U.S. presidential candidates on the basis of how "good" they are for Israel. Some observers have critiqued the project for meddling in America's domestic politics and, especially because it is printed in English and posted online, for assuming Americans should even care what Israelis think about the American political arena.

But the fact is that what Israelis think of the presidential hopefuls' views on Israel is important not only to Israel but to the United States as well. For starters, about a 100,000 American voters live in Israel. Many Israelis have friends and families in the United States. Indeed, one Israeli joke says that to the average Israeli, only four states matter: New York, California, Florida and Israel. More significantly, if the United States' image in the Middle East is to be resurrected from the ashes of the Iraq disaster over the coming years, its salvation will no doubt turn substantially on U.S. interactions with Israel and its Middle East neighbors.

Regardless of whether the Bush administration's policies are seen as good or worrisome for Israel at this point, the hawkish support for Israel by past Republican administrations means that the party's '08 candidates generally carry high favor among Israelis. (Rudy Giuliani is particularly beloved, perhaps because of that New York thing, in addition to his über-hawkish message.) But against the backdrop of turmoil in the region, the posturing of the '08 Democratic candidates is raising some interesting questions -- including whether a less blindly hawkish candidate might ultimately have more appeal.

Back in March, when I attended the annual bipartisan convention of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the powerful pro-Israel lobby group, I tried to pin down a senior AIPAC official as to which of the Democratic candidates he thought best for Israel. As it was many months ahead of the U.S. election, unsurprisingly he demurred, insisting that all the candidates would continue to foster the close relationship between Israel and the United States. However, during the convention there seemed to be some significant differences between the candidates in the eyes of the grassroots AIPAC delegates. For example, several of those with whom I spoke seemed to have an aversion to Barack Obama, who, while supportive of Israel, also made some remarks shortly before the convention focused on the plight of Palestinians, which sparked unhappy reactions among some pro-Israel constituents.

Although the reception Obama hosted at the end of the convention was crowded, it wasn't nearly as packed as the competing one Hillary Clinton hosted at the same time. In fact, I got the sense from talking to several who attended the Obama event that they were there less out of ideological affinity than curiosity and the power of celebrity.

In Israel itself, Hillary Clinton is exceedingly popular. In large part, this is due to the legacy of her husband, whose popularity in the country is almost impossible to overestimate. When I was working in the Israeli prime minister's office in 2005, Bill Clinton came to visit the country, and three times I witnessed overwhelming displays of affection for the former president. At an event where he was speaking, a crowd of a couple hundred thousand gathered. At a private dinner full of Israeli dignitaries, the place turned into what might as well have been called "The Bill Clinton Show." And when he visited the prime minister's office, dozens of Israeli government officials literally pushed each other aside just to catch sight of him. There is tremendous trust for him in the Israeli polity, and to some extent, this has transferred to Hillary, who has worked assiduously to cultivate it, both in Israel and among Israel's staunchest supporters in the United States. She has talked as tough against Israel's enemies as has almost any Republican and has expressed serious reluctance to engage with Syria or Iran. It is no surprise, then, that according to Haaretz's Israel Factor, she ranks highest among the Democratic candidates in her friendliness to Israel. She is also very likely the Democrat most favored among the broader Israeli public, and of the Democratic contenders, the one most in sync with the pro-Israel hard-liners in the United States.

Although John Edwards has been critical of the Bush administration for being too hands-off in trying to bring Israelis and Palestinians to some kind of agreement, his rhetoric hasn't veered far from the status quo. In January, at Israel's annual preeminent Herzliya Conference on national security, Edwards spoke harshly against Iran, garnering a good deal of support from Israeli leaders and the Israeli public. "We have muddled along for far too long," Edwards said. "To ensure that Iran never gets nuclear weapons, we need to keep all options on the table. Let me reiterate -- all options must remain on the table." With those words, echoing the pages of the Dick Cheney playbook, he also bought some harsh criticism from his dovish supporters back home in the U.S. -- which later led Edwards to backtrack to some degree.

Obama, however, has been more reluctant to echo the talking points of the Bush administration, and perhaps because of this, he has also consistently scored lower in the rankings of Haaretz's Israel Factor. Obama calls himself a friend of Israel, and Israelis and their supporters in the United States widely consider him one -- but he also seems to bring a fresh outlook on the Middle East. Although he is subtle about it, he seems to favor an approach with marked differences from the positions of AIPAC, the Republican Party and some of his fellow Democratic candidates. He has asserted on several occasions that an Obama administration would take a more hands-on approach to Middle East diplomacy, including actively engaging with Syria and Iran.

In February, this prompted M.J. Rosenberg, the director of policy analysis for the Israel Policy Forum, a left-leaning lobby group in Washington, to write that Obama had "thus differentiated himself from Edwards and Clinton on the biggest threat America faces" -- the threat of war with Iran. Rosenberg added that Obama's prioritizing diplomacy with America's otherwise demonized Middle Eastern adversaries "was courageous and will cost him with the D.L.C.-Neocon wing of the Democratic party. But he did it anyway. He simply endorsed a position that is right for America, right for Israel, and right for the entire world."

Indeed, if such a change were to manifest under Obama, it would be in sharp contrast with what can seem at times like blind American support for the most hawkish of Israeli policies. And there are indications that certain segments of the Israeli government might welcome it. One senior Israeli official told me this month that he -- along with other government officials a step or two below the top leadership -- were increasingly of the opinion that the classic kind of U.S. "support" for Israel was counterproductive for everyone involved. "They tell us, 'Be strong! Continue fighting!'" the senior Israeli official said, "but who has to continue to fighting and dying, with no result at all? It's us -- it's not the American hard-liners and cheerleaders."

In the end, even the panelists for the Israel Factor seem to agree that the issue of Israel will not have much impact on American voters, or at least on American Jewish voters, because essentially all of the candidates appear unequivocally behind Israel. (The panelists do seem to believe, though, that the subject might have an impact on evangelical Christians in the United States, primarily because of the potentially apocalyptic idea of taking on Iran.) Still, there are subtle distinctions between the positions of the candidates, and it is in teasing them out -- what approach might Obama or Clinton or Edwards really pursue once in office? -- that one can discern who may do little to alter the deadly status quo in the Middle East, and who just might help change it for the better.

By Gregory Levey

Salon contributor Gregory Levey is the author of the memoir, "Shut Up, I'm Talking: And Other Diplomacy Lessons I Learned in the Israeli Government." He is on faculty at Ryerson University, and blogs at Gregory

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