In a laudable effort to tone down the rancorous political rhetoric that has made Israel a wedge issue between Republicans and Democrats, and to rally bipartisan support for Israel, the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League announced a “National Unity Pledge for Israel” last week. They were unfortunately lambasted by right-wing groups committed to using Israel as a political football in the presidential election, even at the expense of the solid bipartisanship that has characterized U.S. support for Israel for decades.
The creators of the “unity pledge” do not want to stifle disagreements about Israel and different U.S. policy approaches to the Middle East. Instead, they are trying to ensure that in the heat of the political season, the message that both political parties are firmly committed to Israel’s security will not be drowned out by vitriolic debate about America’s Israel policy.
The pledge sensibly noted that “support for Israel has never been merely a plank in a Republican or Democratic Party or candidate’s platform.” Asserting that “United States must continue to project to the world the solid support of the American people and their elected representatives for Israel’s rights and quest for peace and security,” the pledge called for “American voices” to be “raised together in unshakeable support for our friend and ally.”
In response, the Republican Jewish Coalition, Emergency Committee for Israel and others claimed the pledge was meant to suppress criticisms of the Obama administration’s Middle East policies. However, the “unity pledge” is meant to do no such thing. It is intended to keep legitimate policy criticisms in perspective.
The Democratic and Republican parties share long-standing records of supporting Israel’s security and its pursuit of lasting peace. The vast majority of Democratic and Republican elected officials and politicians agree that the Jewish people deserve a state of their own, that the “special relationship” forged between the U.S. and Israel is based on shared values and common interests, and that Israel needs to retain its qualitative military edge over still-hostile neighbors.
Continued American support for these principles has always been a key strategic asset of Israel, and that is why the American Jewish community has worked hard to retain solid relationships with both sides of the aisle. This bipartisan alliance has ensured that Israel’s enemies would always know that America has Israel’s back — no matter which party is in power. This perception should not change even as differences about America’s Israel policy are expressed in election campaigns. The ADL-AJC pledge was an admirable effort to clarify the distinction between the broad consensus in support of Israel’s security and legitimate policy debate.
Of course, the critics of the unity pledge have only one real interest: defeating Barack Obama in the coming presidential election. However, when Obama’s critics slam his Middle East policies, they should be careful not to distort American political history. Recent, broad claims that the president and his party are not “pro-Israel” or are throwing Israel “under the bus” leave the impression that Obama has embarked on a radically different course from his predecessors. Democratic administrations have not had a monopoly on proactive Middle East peace diplomacy or disagreements with Israeli governments. In fact, Obama fits the mold of presidents from both parties who have tried to resolve differences between Israel and its neighbors.
It was the Reagan administration, and Secretary of State George Schultz, who decided to talk to the PLO, despite fierce Israeli objections. It was the George H. Bush administration that tried to condition American loan guarantees on halting Israeli settlement construction, to the chagrin of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Shamir. It was the George W. Bush administration that articulated the goal of establishing a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, and with the other members of the Quartet formulated a “road map” to Middle East peace that is not dissimilar to the vision Obama has articulated.
The world needs to know that the bonds between the U.S. and Israel are too strong to be severed by sporadic disagreements either between their respective governments or between American politicians.
Of course, candidates and Jewish groups should be able to disagree with a sitting president from either party. But they should do so with a modicum of civility and eliminate vitriol, and never imply that there is something either “Democratic” or “Republican” about support for Israel or American peacemaking efforts in the Middle East. That is what the “unity pledge” was all about, and why all who care about Israel’s security should be signing on.
Peter A. Joseph is president of the Israel Policy Forum (IPF).