A most un-illuminating election
10/31/2010 - 10:21
James Besser

Question: what have the congressional election campaigns told us about the state of the debate over U.S. Middle East policy?

Answer: Nothing good.

The fierce, bitter midterm campaigns have demonstrated once again that a small but vocal minority in the Jewish community thinks only of partisan concerns – partisan support for a political faction in Israel, or for the Republican party in this country – and not much about the need to strengthen U.S.-Israel ties or to ensure support for Israel is a bi-partisan affair, not just another partisan wedge issue.

I'm not talking about Jewish Republicans in general, or Jewish voters who think President Obama is a little more sympathetic to the Palestinians than to Israel. I'm certainly not talking about those who see his efforts to resume Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and his overtures to Iran as flawed, incompetent, naïve or all of the above.

I'm talking about those who say that he's the “most anti-Israel president ever” or an “anti-Semite.” I'm talking about those who insist he's a secret Muslim with Allah-knows-what schemes for undermining the Jewish state.

I see all of that in emails and blogs, and what this tells me is that these aren't people interested in a rational debate about policies that are highly debatable, but only in narrowing the definition about what it means to be pro-Israel in support of a particular partisan version of Israel.

Lest it sounds like this is a pitch for liberal Democrats, let me say this about President Obama's most fervent Jewish supporters: while defending him against some of the over-the-top attacks, they are trying to render themselves invisible on the issue of his Middle East efforts.

They'll defend him in general terms as a friend of Israel, but you don't hear much positive discussion of his actual policies. I suspect that because even arch-Democrats can't really figure out what those policies are and how they will play out.

U.S.-Israel relations and Obama administration Middle East policies have played out only in bitter accusations and reflexive defensiveness  - sort of like how most hot domestic issues have played out in the campaign. if I have to hear one more time that this most un-socialistic president - whose idea of health care reform is to back the big insurance companies -  is a socialist, I'm going to toss my cookies.

A lot of the Jewish Democrats I talk to are deeply disappointed by an administration they see as rudderless and a president who they see as lacking the courage of his convictions – or, maybe, just lacking convictions. For obvious reasons, they're keeping quiet – which also doesn't contribute to a useful public discussion of the issue.

In a way, Jewish Democrats are lucky; the rhetorical excesses of the Jewish Obama haters on the right have pretty much freed his supporters from the need to defend his Middle East policies in a detailed way. I suspect they're happy about that, since not many have an idea of where this confused administration is going in the region.

More than in most elections, Israel and U.S. Middle East policies have been sideshows in 2010. The issues have surfaced in only a tiny handful of elections – and in those, they're unlikely to prove decisive.

This is an election about deep domestic distress, about widespread dissatisfaction with Congress and the administration, about fears about the American future.

Right-wing rage and left-wing disappointment about his Middle East policies are huge in the Jewish community, and they make good newspaper copy – but it's hard to find any serious political observer who thinks they will be anything more than faint blips on the national political radar in this year of political perfect storms.

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