What am I to say when people ask me, as they frequently do these days, which presidential candidate is best for Israel?
When I sometimes ask, in response, what they mean by “best for Israel,” they may think I’m being facetious or evasive, but I’m not.
So I start with recent history before examining the current Democratic and Republican candidates.
Was Bill Clinton best for Israel when he spent so much time and energy trying to knock heads at Camp David in 2000 and bring about a peace agreement between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority President Yasir Arafat?
Or was Clinton’s successor, George W. Bush, best for Israel with his hands-off approach to forced peace negotiations (at least until Annapolis,
late in his second term) and his look-the-other-way attitude toward Israel’s forceful response to the second intifada, allowing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to send the army into Palestinian cities to root out the terrorists whose bombings were destroying Israeli lives and morale?
Two very different men, Clinton and Bush, and two very different approaches to the Mideast conflict. But they ended up in the very same place, pushing the Israelis and Palestinians for an unrealistic peace process. And you could make a case for either that what they did, with the best of intentions, ended up leaving Israel more vulnerable.
It seems clear to me that Clinton not only appreciated, admired and supported Israel — and leaders like Barak and the late Yitzchak Rabin — but that he genuinely wanted to bring Israel a new level of security and an end to violence.
The basic parameters of the agreement he and his administration tried to achieve at Camp David, and later at Taba in early 2001, remain the essential formula for an Israeli-Palestinian peace: the Palestinians pledge to end the violence and Israel returns to the pre-‘67 borders with some modifications. Israel gives up much of the West Bank but keeps key “consensus” settlements with the most concentrated Jewish population; Palestinian refugees are compensated monetarily but live in the new Palestinian state, not Israel; and Jerusalem is divided in some symbolic way, with Israel maintaining the Jewish holy sites and the Palestinians creating a capital in a largely Arab area somewhat removed from the center.
Of course we know that Arafat balked at that agreement at the last minute, as he no doubt would have balked at any agreement, believing that fellow Palestinians, who oppose the very existence of a Jewish state, would kill him.
His response to Camp David was to launch, or at least permit, the second intifada, with its murderous attacks on Israelis and with suicide bombings throughout the land.
When Bush came to power, he was determined not to make the same mistakes he believed Clinton made in pushing for negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians. Surely his great accomplishment for Israel during his seven years, so far, in office was to support Sharon’s counteroffensive into Palestinian cities in the wake of the Passover seder bombing of 2002 — a military push that allowed Israel to focus on the terror centers and slow, if not completely stop, the wave of violence.
But in the last few months, Bush has come around to the Clinton administration approach, believing that Mideast stability begins with achieving an Israeli-Palestinian agreement along the same contours of the Camp David and Taba talks.
Arafat is gone, but the same basic stumbling blocks remain — namely that neither the Israeli nor Palestinian leadership is strong enough to make the compromises necessary, even if they wanted to, and the U.S. is too weak or unwilling to hold them accountable to fulfill their pledges. So we have virtual negotiations rather than real ones, allowing Ehud Olmert, Mahmoud Abbas and George Bush to tread diplomatic water by going through the motions of progress, which they see as preferable to the much-feared status quo.
Which brings us, at last, to Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John McCain. And while they each have their strengths and weaknesses on a range of domestic and foreign affairs issues, I would argue that they would be much the same on Israel — supporting what has become the Washington point of view toward Mideast peace. It calls for a continuation of the Clinton and now Bush approach of negotiations, concessions and compromises under the premise that a Palestinian state can be created that will live in peace with Israel.
Only Rudy Giuliani among the leading ‘08 presidential candidates opposed that basic premise, writing in Foreign Affairs last fall that the Palestinians need good governance and an end to violence before negotiations could begin. But he’s no longer running.
With the remaining three, you can feel comfortable with each, focusing on their strong pledges for Israel at AIPAC conferences and other forums, their voting records and support for Israel in its war with Hezbollah in 2006, as well as their disdain for negotiating with Hamas.
Or if you prefer, you can note that Hilary once kissed Mrs. Arafat and never forgive that awkward moment; you can choose to believe that Obama would be too eager to champion diplomacy over military spine in dealing with Israel’s enemies; and you can focus on McCain suggesting in a May 2006 interview with Ha’aretz that he would send “the smartest person I know,” either James Baker or Brent Scowcroft — anathema to Israeli supporters on the right — as potential Mideast envoys, “though I know that you in Israel don’t like Baker.”
In the same vein, you can study each candidate’s list of two-dozen or so advisers on foreign policy and concentrate on the one or two with questionable support for Israel as proof that the candidate would choose either of them to be secretary of state.
My point is that it all depends on how much you want to convince yourself that the person you oppose for president would be a disaster for Israel. But the reality is that each of the three remaining frontrunners would approach the Mideast conflict with essentially the same outlook and intention, and with the premise that Israel-Palestinian negotiations should be encouraged and supported, much along the lines of the Clinton and now Bush efforts.
Upsetting? Comforting? That’s your call, but don’t come away believing one or the other will be dramatically different when it comes to Israel any more than you believe the long line of empty pledges to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
So base your choice on a host of other very real factors from personality to integrity to domestic issues to Iraq to a variety of foreign policy concerns, including acknowledging and identifying the very real threat of Islamic militancy.
But if you tell me you’re voting for one or the other based primarily on what he or she would do or not do for Israel, I’d say you’re only fooling yourself.