WASHINGTON (JTA) — Republican presidents have been guiding Israel toward the peace table — sometimes not so gently — almost since the Jewish state was born more than six decades ago.
But in the recent round of debates, the crop of candidates vying for the GOP nomination have been chiding President Obama for forcing Israel’s hand — usually to great cheers from the audience.
“You don’t allow an inch of space to exist between you and your friends and allies,” former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said at the most recent debate, Sept. 22 in Orlando, Fla., earning thunderous applause.
The GOP has moved a considerable distance since President Dwight Eisenhower banged Israeli heads until the Jewish state agreed to relinquish the Sinai Peninsula captured in the 1956 Middle East War — or even since President George W. Bush cajoled Israelis and Palestinians into the ill-fated 2007 Annapolis talks.
Romney and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, the front-runners, disagree on many issues — Social Security as a federal program, the utility of health care mandates, immigrant rights — but they trip over each other in assailing the Obama administration for pressuring or criticizing Israel.
Romney coined the phrase “threw Israel under the bus” when Obama in May called for talks peace based on the 1967 lines, with land swaps.
Not to be outdone, Perry traveled to New York for the opening of the United Nations General Assembly and accused Obama of “appeasement” and said he backed Israel because he was a Christian.
Whereas previous Republican administrations have opposed, with varying degrees of vehemence, Israeli settlement building and remained cool to Israeli claims to sovereignty over eastern Jerusalem, Perry departed from these positions at his New York news conference. Standing beside right-wing Jewish activists, Perry expressed support for Israeli settlement building and said he favored Jerusalem “being united under Israeli rule.”
Current and former GOP operatives and veterans of Republican administrations have identified a number of factors in explaining why the Republican Party, which until a decade or so ago tolerated a faction that advocated keeping Israel at a friendly distance, is now hewing almost exclusively to a policy of no daylight between the United States and the Jewish state.
The chief reason they cite is the growth of the evangelical movement as a cornerstone of the party, but other factors include the changed attitudes toward the Middle East in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the significance of the Jewish vote in certain swing states and the emergence of a Jewish Republican donor base in a community that for decades has given mostly to Democrats.
“Israel is not just for Jews anymore,” said Noam Neusner, a former domestic policy adviser to President George W. Bush and now a communications consultant to Christians United For Israel. “There are 5 million American Jews and 50 million evangelicals, some of whom are Hispanic, African American, Korean. Every Sunday morning they are reading scripture and reading it seriously.
“What the candidates all understand implicitly is that you demonstrate a sense of America’s unique role in the world and moral force by supporting Israel.”
Matthew Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said that while evangelicals had a role, the changed post-Sept. 11 world should not be underestimated as a factor. Republican presidents such as Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush operated in a Cold War arena in which cultivating allies among Israel’s rivals and enemies may have made sense — but that is no longer the case, he said.
“There were elements in the realist camp who may have seen Israel not as a strategic ally,” Brooks said of the presidency of the first George Bush. “Given how things have developed — the global war on terror, the rise of militant Islam — that doesn’t make any sense anymore.”
Marshall Breger, an adviser to Reagan who now teaches law at Catholic University, noted that the post-Sept. 11 atmosphere tended to favor the neoconservatives within the party. Breger also said that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, educated and partly raised in the United States, has been able to converse with Republicans in language they understand.
“Bibi made a huge impact. His original outreach to conservatives was free market, and then it extended to the war on terror,” he said. “You had the rise of the neocons and their influence on foreign policy, the notion that democracy is what you should strive for, and Israel is a democracy.”
Breger also said that while Jewish fund-raisers still tend to give to Democrats, there is a growing base of Republican Jewish givers.
“Even in 2008, when a very high number of Jews voted for Obama, the financial support Jews gave to the party was significant,” he said. “And it’s still seen as relatively untapped.”
But Breger noted that campaign promises can eventually run up against the challenges of governance, noting the old saw “You campaign in poetry, you govern in prose.”
Dov Zakheim, a former senior Pentagon official in both Bush administrations, said that a Republican president likely would have to make decisions that displeased Israel.
“Elections are about principle, holding office is about realties,” he said. “Ronald Reagan wasn’t always doing what Menachem Begin wanted, but there was a recognition that whatever Reagan did, his heart was in the right place; the same with [George W.] Bush. I don’t think there’s the same perception with Obama.”
Neusner, however, expressed doubt that the next Republican president would pressure Israel even to the extent that his old boss, George W. Bush, did.
“In a future Republican White House, the president chooses who his advisers are going to be, and it includes people who he is comfortable with,” he said. “It may include realists, but increasingly it looks like it’s not going to.”
Leading Republican realists such as Brent Scowcroft and Jim Baker, the first President Bush’s national security adviser and secretary of state, respectively, are now in their 80s. The aging realists are not being replaced, at least within the GOP, Neusner said.
“Those people find themselves more comfortable in the Democratic Party,” he said.