Democrats’ Plans Must Factor in Israel

As public support for the war in Iraq continues to deteriorate and as the Bush administration’s political situation trembles on the precipice, Democrats are beginning to stir. Pushed by a party base that has long detested what it sees as timorous accommodation to Bush, national Democrats are trying out themes and approaches that they hope will bring them back to a share of national power.

The most comfortable territory for newly emboldened Democrats will be domestic policy, and that is why the Hurricane Katrina disaster has been such a political turning point. But Jewish voters will certainly hope that a thoughtful, effective foreign policy that helps preserve Israel’s security will be a prominent part of that turnaround.

Democrats thrive on domestic policy. But for Jewish voters, foreign policy, or at least Middle East policy, is literally a form of domestic policy. For most voters, foreign policy extends only as far as locations where American troops are suffering casualties, which means Iraq and Afghanistan today. American Jews are well aware of the Iraq and Afghanistan situations, but are also watching Israel’s back with great care.

In this sense, Jewish voters are not the simple party-line Democrats that they seem to be. Because of their great commitment to Israel, Jews attentively observe the two parties not only on the usual issues that divide them, but on Israel’s security as well. For Jewish voters, therefore, the best Democratic foreign policy is not to be just anti-Bush. It is to restore the grand tradition of a strong, respected and admired America, while maintaining this nation’s special relationship with Israel.

When the Iraq War was first launched, it was greeted positively by Israel’s political leadership, which saw the defeat of one of its enemies. It is hard to imagine today, though, that the likely creation of a pro-Iranian state in Iraq is good news for Israel.

But while the war has turned out to be an even bigger catastrophe than its critics had predicted, Jewish voters are rightfully wary of linking together sentiment against the Iraq War with anti-Israel feelings. Outside the United States, criticism of the Iraq War goes hand in hand with criticism of Israel.

For decades many in the Middle East have resented America’s close and domestically bipartisan ties to Israel, and for that there need be no apology here or in Europe or in the Middle East. The gross misjudgments and lies that paved the way to Baghdad are the work of one single administration, not a bipartisan consensus of presidents from Harry S. Truman to Bill Clinton. But the Bush administration’s single-minded pursuit of war and its boneheaded inattentiveness to postwar reconstruction have done little to redeem the promise to make Israel safer.

Few Americans have been watching the internal machinations of Israeli politics in the wake of the Gaza withdrawal, but we can be certain that Jewish voters are watching. The twists and turns of Israeli politics have forced progressive American Jews to take a long second look at one of the left’s political demons: Ariel Sharon.

Vilified by the Likud right wing, Sharon is hanging onto party leadership and his coalition government by a thread, and by his viable threat to form a new party with centrist and leftist parties. To sophisticated observers of Israel’s evolving politics, the peace community in Israel has a major and surprising interest in the political survival of Sharon, who is vilified by progressives outside Israel.

What does this all mean for a Democratic foreign policy that can provide an alternative to the Bush program?

From the standpoint of Jewish voters, it would be best not to revisit all post-World War II American foreign policy, but only the dangerous side road that has been Bush’s policy since Sept. 11, 2001, of pre-emptive war, unilateralism and the Iraq War. The bipartisan idea of a strong America that does not seek war, but is not afraid to fight one, is a far better position than simply being anti-war. And it is crucial to those who support Israel that Israel’s safety not become entangled in the effort to disengage America from the excesses of the ideological Bush foreign policy.

The Democrats need to develop a bench of foreign policy specialists who could advise a presidential candidate and could staff a Democratic White House. Such a group would help reassure Jewish (and other) voters that Democrats are serious about world leadership, which is essential to Israel’s security.

It helped Republicans immensely that in the early 1970s, a number of Jewish defense intellectuals (once known as Henry “Scoop” Jackson Cold War Democrats) moved from the Democrats to the Republicans, providing intellectual heft to the Republican foreign policy program. These were the years when the smallest proportion of Jews voted for the Democratic presidential candidate. Such specialists might have warned John Kerry in 2004 not to propose that Jimmy Carter and James Baker be his Middle East envoys, because they would have foreseen how Jewish voters would react negatively to both names.

When it comes to Israel, it may be painful for Democrats to admit, but in one area Bush may have been right, and the generally thoughtful Clinton wrong, and that is in the last-ditch pursuit of a peace agreement for its own sake.

Near the end of his presidency, Clinton was pushing extremely hard for a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. But many Israelis, even on the left, had already come to believe after the collapse of the Oslo accords that Yasser Arafat was a fraud who would never deliver peace. The Bush group, dedicated in all things to doing the opposite of Clinton, even when Clinton was right, in this case avoided the peace process and backed the Israeli government position against Arafat. And then when Arafat died, the process opened up through Israel’s own political process.

Therefore, Democrats ought to consider continuing that in which Bush was right about Israel, while undoing the catastrophic damage he has done to the world, to the United States and Israel in Iraq. And in so doing, Democrats will prove that they are more than the anti-Bush, and that it is Bush who is the anomaly in American foreign policy.

Raphael J. Sonenshein, a political scientist at Cal State Fullerton, is spending the fall as a visiting scholar at the USC department of political science.