America and Israel 2012

Never before in any previous race for the White House have U.S.-Israel relations played such a prominent role in the campaign. What accounts for that?

Moshe_Arens_cropped-150x150By Moshe Arens

(A version of this column appeared in Haaretz on August 7, 2012.)

As any fool knows, the upcoming United States presidential election is going to be decided by the state of the economy in November 2012. That is what is uppermost in the minds of most Americans after years of deep economic crisis. And yet, never before in any previous race for the White House have U.S.-Israel relations played such a prominent role in the campaign. What accounts for that?

Some might ascribe it to the phenomenal performance of Benjamin Netanyahu on the American political scene. To the many standing ovations he received in his recent appearance before both houses of Congress, and to his many friends among American politicians. One American journalist recently, half-jocularly, remarked that if there is one man who could beat Obama in the race for the White House, it is Netanyahu. But that would not be an adequate explanation for this unprecedented phenomenon. After all, it is America’s interests that are at stake in this election, and not the popularity in America of Israeli politicians.

A major change has crept over the America political scene as regards to Israel in the past few decades. This change began with Ronald Reagan’s entry into the White House in 1981. Although it was always politically correct to speak of American support for Israel as being bipartisan, actually since Harry Truman extended U.S. recognition of the State of Israel on May 15, 1948, the center of gravity of political support for Israel was for years in the Democratic party. During those years most Republican Senators and Congressmen, with some exceptions of course, took a somewhat jaundiced view of Israel. They saw it as a small country continually in need of assistance, and a disturbing factor in the relationship between the U.S. and the all-important Arab world. There was even a degree of resentment that the advocates of this small country were wielding so much influence on Capitol Hill. The Dwight Eisenhower administration and his Secretary of State John Foster Dulles characterized this approach.

Israel’s victories in the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War changed the perception of Israel in the eyes of many in America. Israel was now seen as strong, heroic and an ally of significance in the Cold War. Reagan brought that image of Israel to the White House. He admired Israel, its fortitude and its proven ability to stand up to enemies far superior in number. Like the America that he led and loved, he saw Israel as the home of the brave.

Israeli-U.S. cooperation reached a peak during his presidency with the Lavi aircraft project. It became an Israeli-American fighter aircraft project and the U.S. permitted Israel access to all U.S. technology and systems required for the aircraft. There has been nothing like this cooperation between the U.S. and Israel since the Lavi project was so foolishly canceled by Israel in 1987.

Not all the Republicans surrounding Reagan shared his view of Israel. Israel’s stubborn refusal to accept American advice on the Palestinian issue was resented by them, and its influence in Washington was seen as a matter of the “tail wagging the dog.” George Bush Sr., Reagan’s vice-president and successor in the White House, was among those who believed that American aid to Israel should be rewarded by Israeli acceptance of American guidance. But as the years went by more and more of the Republican party began to share Reagan’s admiration and enthusiastic support of Israel. George W. Bush, Barack Obama’s predecessor, followed in Reagan’s footsteps. In the recent Republican primaries, all but one of the candidates during the campaign spoke repeatedly of their passionate support of Israel.

It was inevitable that Republicans and Democrats would begin to emphasize their support for Israel during the present campaign. Admiration and support of Israel has become almost as American as apple pie, even though there are still some political circles in America that have their reservations about Israel. But both candidates for the presidency feel the need to emphasize their support for Israel during the campaign. Regardless of whether the next American president will be Obama or Mitt Romney, Israel will be able to depend on solid support in both houses of Congress during the next four years.

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