The End of Bush’s ‘Jewish Moment’

Republicans once had high hopes that George W. Bush would draw American Jews away from their historic affinity with Democrats into embracing the conservative party. They believed that Jews would be drawn to Bush’s intense support for the State of Israel. Orthodox Jews, already more conservative than most American Jews, would be attracted by Bush’s faith-based initiatives. Neo-conservative intellectuals, a number of whom are Jewish and strongly pro-Israel, would be integrated into the foreign policy apparatus of the administration. And finally, the war in Iraq would remake the map of the Middle East in a way that would enhance Israel’s security. Taken together, the Bush administration would provide the Republicans with their “Jewish moment.”

The first test of this multifaceted plan was the 2004 presidential election. That seemed to be a bust. Democrat John Kerry won an estimated three-quarters of Jewish voters. But then the Republican plan was never based exclusively on winning Jewish votes. It was as much about splitting the Jewish campaign-funding base, and introducing a germ of doubt into Jewish loyalty to the Democrats, especially where Israel’s security was concerned. It was also about enhancing the gap between Republicans and Democrats in foreign policy leadership. The White House successfully cultivated pro-Israel Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) to be their favorite Democrat, while rumors swirled that he would replace Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defense.

Many American Jews were uncomfortable with the U.S. invasion of Iraq, but, after all, Israel’s leadership spoke publicly in favor of the war, remembering how Saddam Hussein had rained missiles into Israel during the first Gulf War. Jewish voters give credence to the positions of Israeli leadership on security matters, and Israel is perhaps the most pro-American nation on earth. By the same token, intense European opposition to the war counted for less, given Europe’s pro-Arab track record.

While American unilateralism might discomfort progressive Jews, many also have demonstrated a certain willingness to endure the international isolation that comes with America’s support for Israel. And older Jews remember Jewish Cold War intellectuals joining with the Nixon administration when the Democrats seemed weaker on foreign policy in the McGovern era. And it was Nixon who bailed out Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

But since Bush’s re-election, these pillars of a paradigm shift have eroded, and now totter on the verge of collapse. The poor progress of the war in Iraq stands at the heart of the matter. The neo-conservatives turned out to be second-rate armchair warriors, working with a less-than-talented administration that shared their fantasies of global domination. Despite his corruption and dishonesty, Nixon was a brilliant strategic thinker on the global scene. He prided himself on a cold-hearted realism that allowed him to abandon his own Cold War ideology, play the People’s Republic of China against the Soviet Union and conclude historic agreements with each of them. Even as his popularity at home evaporated, he still enjoyed great respect in major world capitals. He didn’t like Jews very much (as shown in the famous White House tapes), and offered little rhetoric in support of Israel, but with the Jewish state in mortal peril during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, he moved quickly and effectively to mobilize critically needed U.S. aid.

The Bush group of politicians and neo-conservative intellectuals, by contrast, has relied on the fantastical notion that an American invasion of an Arab country would spark a democratic upsurge in the Middle East. New elections would install pro-American and pro-Israeli governments in the region, thereby assuring U.S. hegemony and Israeli security. They pulled out maps of the region and plotted what they proudly referred to as the new American era of ideological and economic dominance. They saw endless possibilities for positive change in the region. One administration insider gloated about Egypt, “We can do better than Mubarak.” It apparently never occurred to them that elections might bring fundamentalist, anti-American and anti-Israel forces to power. For that matter, they seemed utterly surprised by the impact of televised images of tortured and humiliated prisoners.

Wedded to this doctrine, the administration resisted Israeli entreaties to delay Palestinian elections or to insist on preconditions for Hamas involvement, with the result that a democratically elected Hamas government, unwilling to recognize Israel, now stands on Israel’s border.

Instead of a moderate democratic renaissance, the Iraq War threatens to spark a civil war. And the prestige and power of Israel’s major regional foe, Iran, has been enhanced in the bargain. In February, Israeli television broadcast comments by Yuval Diskin, head of Israel’s Shin Bet intelligence service, who was overhead suggesting that Israel might have been better off if Saddam were still in power controlling a stable, albeit hostile, Iraq.

The Bush administration and its neo-conservative intellectuals may have inadvertently shifted the cream of foreign policy thinkers back to the Democrats. Bush’s politicians and ideologues have driven out enough foreign policy professionals from the federal government to staff a new administration, from anti-terror specialist Richard Clarke to that famously unmasked CIA agent Valerie Plame.

The controversial port deal with the United Arab Emirates and the revelation that the UAE participates in the Arab boycott of Israel further changes the political dynamic. The ports controversy has for the first time allowed Democrats to move to the more pro-Israel side of the Bush administration. Ironically, then, the transition of the Nixon era may indeed be replayed. But in a twist of history, it may be the Democrats that benefit if they can rediscover their own long-lost tradition of foreign policy leadership.

Raphael J. Sonenshein is a political scientist at Cal State Fullerton.