Speaking at the annual Anti-Defamation League meeting in New York last week, a senior official of the Obama White House warned that “harm could come” from turning differences over Mideast policy between the U.S. and Israel into “election-year talking points.”

Antony Blinken, deputy assistant to the president and national security adviser to the vice president, said his views were based “not on stifling debate,” but on the premise that discussions between the two allies should be open and frank, and “should question each other’s judgments but not each other’s motives.”

Two days later, addressing several thousand delegates at the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, meeting in Denver, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), chair of the Democratic National Committee, in defending President Barack Obama’s Mideast policies, called attacks on his record “deliberate distortions” and asserted: “Israel should never be used as political football.”

But of course Israel has become a political football and motives are being questioned as the 2012 election campaign moves into full stride, and efforts to prevent the U.S.-Israel relationship from becoming a political wedge issue have backfired.

Case in point: There are no more savvy experts on the mood and politics of the American Jewish community than Abe Foxman and David Harris, professional heads of the ADL and American Jewish Committee, respectively, our two leading mainstream national Jewish defense organizations.

But Foxman and Harris seem to have been caught off guard last month by the sharp criticism of their joint National Pledge for Unity on Israel, which they no doubt thought would be widely accepted in the Jewish community — a kind of motherhood-and-apple-pie affirmation of the ongoing power, and need, for bipartisan support in Washington for the Jewish state.

The outcries over the unity pledge, particularly on the right, have underscored just how fractured political activists in our community are over Israel. More specifically, the issue speaks to the debate over the wisdom of criticizing the Obama administration, and especially the president himself, as being Israel’s adversary as he seeks re-election.

The joint AJC-ADL statement noted that “America’s friendship with Israel is an emotional, moral and strategic bond that has always transcended politics.”

It added that “the Jewish community has had a strong interest in ensuring that American support for Israel is one of the critical strategic issues that unites rather than divides parties and officials,” and stated that “now is the time to reaffirm that Israel’s well-being is best served, as it always has been, by American voices raised together in unshakeable support for our friend and ally.”

Almost immediately, critics on the right cried foul and asserted that the ADL and AJC were trying to limit debate and protect Obama, whose policies toward Israel have been widely criticized by many in the pro-Israel community.

Zionist Organization of America President Morton Klein expressed “shock,” calling the joint statement an “attempt to limit” the rights of free speech.

He said it was “inappropriate” for Foxman and Harris to become “de facto ‘thought police’ whose self-appointed task is to suppress criticism of politicians hostile to Israel.”

And former Under Secretary of Defense Douglas Feith, in a Wall Street Journal Opinion essay called “Israel Should Be A U.S. Campaign Issue,” asked: “Since when have American supporters of Israel believed that a candidate’s attitudes toward Israel should be kept out of electoral politics? Since never.”

He’s right, and pro-Israel supporters have taken pride in the defeat of perceived enemies in office, including Sen. Charles Percy of Illinois, Rep. Cynthia McKinney in Georgia and President George H.W. Bush in 1992, after he demanded a freeze on Israeli settlements.

So why should Obama’s call for a freeze on settlements two years ago — a policy that even many Democrats would say stalled the peace process needlessly and put the onus on Israel — be off limits for political discussion?

Responding to widespread criticism from the right, the AJC’s Harris posted a blog that made the distinction between “slash and burn” partisanship, where the goal is to attack one’s political enemy, and pro-Israel advocacy, which is grounded in “the here and now,” irrespective of which political party is in and which is out. And the ADL’s Foxman issued a follow-up statement saying that some had distorted the idea behind the pledge. He said the original premise was not to discourage debate but a plea “to avoid harsh and personal rhetoric or tactics in the form of attacks on political opponents’ positions on Israel.”

Too late.

Obama has already been described as the worst president ever for Israel, and an enemy of the Jewish state.

In a sense, the reaction to the unity pledge, which Harris acknowledged neither he nor Foxman thought would cause such a firestorm, is proof of the reason it was issued in the first place.

Was it, in hindsight, naïve for the two leaders to call for putting Israel ahead of politics?

“Others will decide,” Harris said, preferring to describe the effort as “well intentioned.”

Clearly the concept of nonpartisan advocacy on behalf of Israel is powerful, not only in theory but in practice. No U.S. administration since 1948 has been free of showdowns with Jerusalem. Heroes of the pro-Israel movement like Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush had their clashes, like the sale of AWACS to Saudi Arabia (1981) and allowing Palestinian elections resulting in a Hamas victory (2006). And perceived enemies like George H. W. Bush had their triumphs, like the repeal of the Zionism-equals-racism UN resolution.

That’s why the ADL and AJC leaders are not ready to go down the partisan path and declare the Democratic Party dead and the Republican Party the second coming. There is wisdom and power in cultivating both parties.

What Harris and Foxman didn’t say, but what is surely on the mind of mainstream pro-Israel groups, is that if Obama is re-elected next year, he will be free to carry out foreign policy initiatives in a second term, without political constraints. So it behooves the American Jewish community to be on good terms with him rather than burn its bridges in seeking his defeat.

Harris correctly observes that “the partisans are playing with long-term fire for short-term political gains.” That’s why the rest of us should realize that the more our political interests and favors are spread out, the more broad-based American support for Israel will be.

E-mail: Gary@jewishweek.org