No plans to elope: Romney shows his support for Israel in public

Thomas Friedman has long been a critic of conservative support for the State of Israel. But his most recent article attacking Mitt Romney gets it all wrong

Romney on his recent trip to Israel
Zach Ingber
On 6 August 2012 09:55

Columnist Thomas Freidman has long been a critic of conservative support for the State of Israel. His pieces discussing the correlation between the Israeli settler movement and the Republican Party grace the pages of the NY Times on a regular basis.

But in one of his most recent articles, Friedman has blasted Presidential candidate Mitt Romney for traveling to Israel, suggesting the marriage between Romney and billionaire donor Sheldon Adelson could have happened in Las Vegas.

Friedman missed the big picture here; the significance of Romney’s meeting with benefactors was that it occurred in Israel. The ‘plastic Wailing Wall’ that Friedman proposed Romney and Adelson build in Vegas mocks the significance of a Jewish State, the sanctity of Israeli land, and the relationship between the United States and Israel.

Romney understands that you cannot simply recreate the Western Wall and ignore historical ties between a land and a people that have existed for millennia. This is not an unprecedented political statement. Simply by addressing supporters in Jerusalem itself, Romney is by no means facilitating victory for the Israeli settler movement or a far right that longs for a greater Israel spanning across the entire Middle East.

And while Friedman criticizes Romney for spending time in Jerusalem but not Ramallah, the fact that President Obama has not visited Israel in his first term is not even addressed in the column. Yes, one might say that the great conservative Ronald Reagan did not visit Israel as president or that Bush waited until 2008 for his first trip. But for a president that has placed so much emphasis on the Israel-Palestinian peace process, it is shocking that Obama has not made the trip. 

President Obama’s Democratic predecessors, who did much to advance peace in the region, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, both made trips to Israel in their first terms. If Tip O’Neil’s famous credo that ‘all politics is local’ rings true, then President Obama would do well to encourage popular support for peace among the Israeli and Palestinian populations by addressing them on the very ground that will need to be intricately divided.

Friedman spends a large chunk of article space reprimanding Romney for using this conflict as a political focal point. I hate to be the one to break it to him, but there is an election approaching and foreign policy is often a huge voting issue (see Obama and Iraq, circa 2008).

More narrowly, Jewish voters often pay attention to how the presidential candidates perceive the Israeli-Arab conflict. Romney travelled to Israel in order to demonstrate his support for the State of Israel, which will in turn bolster his credentials among Israel single-issue voters. But is that so different from a politician speaking at a steel factory to appeal to trade unionists?

Furthermore, the depiction of AIPAC in the piece is unfair and inaccurate. Friedman tries hard to create an image in which a lawmaker or politician goes before AIPAC – who serves as the judge, jury, and executioner – and is given a hand gesture to determine if they are pro-Israel and ergo have a future in politics. This is hardly the case.

AIPAC supporters span the political spectrum; at the 2012 Policy Conference, AIPAC’s large annual gathering, major speeches were given by Democrats Nancy Pelosi and Carl Levin as well as conservatives such as Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum. Friedman would be hard-pressed to say that Representative Pelosi issued Israel a blank check to create a future where democracy is abandoned and all of the Palestinians are subjugated as second class citizens.

Has Friedman ever wondered why AIPAC is so successful? Perhaps it is because Israel has the popular support of the American people; in 2010, Gallup published statistics reporting that 63 percent of Americans support Israel (the highest since 1991). Friedman’s reference to AIPAC as the ‘Israel lobby,’ alluding to the Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer book accusing the organization of corruptly controlling the American government, is simply factually inaccurate.

In fact, the left has a strong case for supporting AIPAC and strong American-Israel relations. If the American left is keen on Israel ceasing settlement construction and giving up land in the name of peace, Israel will only do so with strong American backing.

As Friedman correctly pointed out, security is not part of the consideration – the current administration has been fervent with regards to Israeli security. The issue here is diplomatic and symbolic support; when Israel feels publicly supported by the US, it feels confident making concessions. Yet when it feels isolated, Israel makes rash and often politically detrimental decisions.

At Camp David in 2000, Ehud Barak proposed the most mouth-watering peace offering to Yasser Arafat ever to appear on the Israeli-Palestinian dinner table. He did this knowing President Clinton was an honest friend of Israel who would stand right beside him every step of the way.

And, conversely, when Obama rhetorically isolated Netanyahu’s government in the first two years of his administration, Bibi pandered to the far right of his coalition and approved the construction of new housing projects that gave the Palestinians an excuse to leave negotiations. 

If Friedman spent more time looking at the big picture as opposed to being bogged down in the quicksand of settlements and the Israeli right, he would realize that AIPAC’s main goal is to strengthen the Israeli-American relationship so Israel can feel confident taking steps towards peace and security. That is something even a left-wing columnist should endorse.

When one zooms out from the alternate reality of the editorial pages, they will see that despite the incessant criticism of the Israeli political climate and ‘unquestioned’ support from the United States, a physical (and not solely rhetorical) American presence is fundamental to the relationship and stability of the region. Romney’s statements about the entrepreneurial spirit of the Jewish people might have been politically unwise, but that idea must resonate with a businessman such as Romney who has made a career out of starting something from nothing.

In fact, that is something that must resonate with most Americans; patriotism and resilience are two qualities embedded in American political culture. If Pelosi and the Democrats only see Jewish support for Romney as a guise for seeking tax cuts, as evidenced by her remarks a few days ago, then November might be a shock to the incumbent and his party.  

Zach Ingber is President of Brown Students for Israel and writes for the Brown Daily Herald

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