American Jews have spent much of the past year tying themselves in knots debating which of the presidential candidates is the stronger supporter of the U.S.-Israel relationship.
To the last week of the campaign, Republicans continued to argue that Barack Obama's protestations of sympathy for the Jewish state were faked. Their last-ditch efforts centered around Obama's appearance at a 2003 dinner honoring Rashid Khalidi, an anti-Zionist academic, at which various other speakers said some nasty things about Israel without apparently sparking much protest from the Democrats' standard-bearer.
But, as with the litany of other charges against Obama, this story was unlikely to change anyone's mind. Indeed, the Democrats have been so effective in conditioning their supporters to dismiss the GOP's arguments as false or irrational that the reaction from many voters was to merely assume (wrongly) that the incident never happened and to completely ignore it.
Yet, for all the ink spilled over the question of which candidate really loves Israel and opposes Palestinian terrorists or Iranian nukes, there is one fundamental problem with the entire debate. Behind most of the points used by both sides was an assumption that Israel's security, if not its existence, rests on our votes for a president.
Making Their Own Decisions
While the next president of the United States will, indeed, have a great deal of influence over what happens in the Middle East, the truth is the winner of a different election will have even more to say about it.
When Israeli voters go to the polls to elect their next Knesset and prime minister in February, certainly the question of which leader can get along better with Washington will factor into their decision. After all, the United States is Israel's only real ally in a largely hostile world and the source of its military aid.
But, the idea that the next American president, whether his name is Obama or McCain, will be dictating peace terms to the next Israeli prime minister is more an Arab fantasy than reality. No person will have as much impact on decisions relating to the fate of the Jewish state as the one chosen by Israel's electorate.
Americans, and even many Israelis, tend to have it backwards when it comes to the question of who will be the one driving the peace process. From the first day of Israeli independence to the present, Israeli prime ministers have always been the ones in charge. Every leader, from David Ben-Gurion all the way to Ehud Olmert, has had the ability to make his or her own decisions concerning the nation's security. Peace initiatives involving the Israel-Arab conflict have had their origins in Jerusalem, not Washington.
In 1977, Anwar Sadat's groundbreaking trip to Israel and the subsequent peace with Egypt was hatched in spite of President Jimmy Carter — who was not trusted by either Sadat or Israel's Menachem Begin — not because of him.
Similarly, the 1993 Oslo Accords were the result of back- channel negotiations with the Palestinians facilitated by Norway, not the United States.
In both instances, the Americans helped close the deal and, subsequently, took a lot of the credit. Many supporters of Israel feared U.S. pressure for Israeli concessions was at the root of these negotiations, but that wasn't the case. Each time, the origin of the process was an Israeli decision that the potential risks were outweighed by the benefits of going ahead.
In particular, though the Oslo Accords may be rightly criticized today as being a colossal blunder on Israel's part, the fault cannot be laid at the feet of the Clinton administration that ultimately promoted the plan. No American twisted the arms of Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres to bring Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Liberation Organization into the territories where they could set up a terrorist-state-in-the-making that was recognized and aided by the rest of the world. They did it because they genuinely believed it was in Israel's best interest.
The same can be said of the most-recent example of peace- process folly — the Annapolis Summit — that took place last fall. Though President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice hosted this pointless attempt to revive talks with the Palestinian Authority, the man who pushed for it was Olmert.
By the same token, at those times when Israeli leaders have felt impelled to use force to save Israeli lives, the constant calls for "mutual restraint" coming from Washington over the decades have not prevented them from acting. That was certainly the case when Israel struck first in 1967 to forestall Arab attacks on the eve of the Six-Day War. It was equally true when Menachem Begin launched an air strike on an Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981. The otherwise-friendly Reagan administration angrily punished Israel but, subsequently, the world, including even other Arab nations, was grateful that Saddam Hussein had been prevented from developing nuclear weapons.
Washington has never been able to prevent Jerusalem from launching a peace feeler to an Arab foe. In the last year, despite the unhappiness of the Bush administration, the Olmert government opened not-so-secret talks with the Syrians, whom the American preferred to isolate.
There are limitations on what Israel can do on its own. And there are formidable pressures that any American president can bring to bear on the Israelis, if he chooses to do so, a fact that even the most independent-minded Israeli must acknowledge. The Jewish state is still far too dependent on American military aid and diplomatic support.
But an American president can't stop Israel from doing something — be it an act of self-defense or a peace feeler — that Israel is convinced is in its interest. On questions relating to their nation's survival, Israelis always have the option of saying "no" to the Americans.
There may be consequences for challenging the United States for Israel to consider. But there are also political costs for any American president to consider, if he wants to go to the mat against the Israelis.
Costs For Both Sides
A Democratic president who wants to take on Israel needs to worry about alienating the Jews who are at the core of that party, though a not-influential, left-wing minority — represented by the J Street group — is supporting the idea of pressure on Israel.
A Republican who does the same would have to contend with conservative Christians who are, if anything, even more fervently pro-Israel than the Jews. This group was a major factor in 2002 when President Bush overruled Secretary of State Colin Powell and supported an Israeli counterattack against a Palestinian terror offensive.
By the spring, the reins of power in Israel will be in the hands of the winner of the election there: Kadima's Tzipi Livni, Likud's Benjamin Netanyahu or Labor's Ehud Barak. Anyone who cares about Israel should keep his or her focus on that contest. As in the past, it will be Israel's voters who will have the last word, not the Americans.