If there were any doubts about the fact that one-time Tennessee senator and actor Fred Thompson was about to run for the Republican nomination for president, it was not due to his recent tiff with filmmaker Michael Moore, appearances on Fox News or various other public appearances.
It was the fact that he used a radio commentary spot, the text of which was subsequently published in the online version of National Review magazine, which articulated his stout support for Israeli counterattacks against Palestinian missile attacks on the city of Sederot, his firm opposition to Hamas and his skepticism about the Palestinian desire for peace.
Good for Thompson for stating such views. But we are all entitled to notice that articulating these positions (which make him hardly unique among presidential contenders) is a function more of his desire to win support from friends of Israel for his presidential ambitions than anything else.
After all, who remembers Thompson ever taking a leadership position on support for Israel during his eight years in the Senate? Not that he was ever counted among Zion's foes, but there's something about having your name mentioned as a possible presidential candidate that seems to bring out Zionists in the most unlikely places.
There are many questions yet to be answered about Thompson's possible run. But his desire for Jewish support and contributions for his campaign is not in doubt.
Election-year conversions are nothing new. Who can forget Sen. Robert Dole (R-Kan.), never previously identified as a friend of Israel, who sought to bolster the appeal of his doomed presidential campaign in 1996 by pushing through legislation to move the U.S. embassy to Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The odds of the embassy actually being moved were even than Dole's chances of actually beating Bill Clinton that November. So, too, were the chances that many Jews would take the bait and back him.
But as the desperate search for campaign dollars is in full swing, it is worthwhile pondering what exactly it is that friends of Israel should be asking the many men and the one woman who stand a chance of actually taking the oath of office on Jan. 21, 2009.
Before answering that question, it should be stipulated that the majority of Jews will never vote for a candidate based on his or her stands on Israel. As has been proven again and again in recent electoral history, many, if not most of us, are as rigidly partisan as any American with loyalty to the Democratic Party among Jews being second only to that of African-Americans. Anyone who discounts either the loyalty of most Jews to the Democrats, and thus their hostility to religious conservatives in the GOP, hasn't been paying attention the last 20 years.
But to recognize this fact is not to discount the possibility that any candidate can win or lose critical campaign funding, as well as eventually some votes by their stands on Middle East issues.
On Israel itself outside of fringe candidates like the wacky right-wing libertarian Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) and the leftist Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), there isn't too much daylight between the candidates on support for Israel's right of self-defense, as well as on their disdain for Hamas.
Democrats have uniformly scorned the Bush administration for its lack of "engagement" in the process. Dovish groups like the Israel Policy Forum have echoed that theme. But while bashing Bush is good politics at the moment, nobody in either party can point to what, if anything, could actually be accomplished with a repeat of the kind of close engagement in the peace process that characterized the Clinton-administration's policy in the 1990s.
No amount of encouragement or bribery from Washington is going to change the corrupt and violent nature of Fatah. Despite U.S. help, Fatah's forces were easily routed by Hamas in Gaza. No one — including Republicans like Rudy Giuliani, who endorsed more aid for Fatah — should expect either half of the Palestinian political spectrum to do what needs to be done to end terrorism or to begin to build a rational state.
Some honesty on that from the candidates would be refreshing. But in the meantime, what we should really be asking them to do is to avoid falling into the trap of looking to Israel to bail out Hamas with concessions that will only lead inevitably to more terrorism.
Another point on which there is seeming consensus is opposition to the Iranian drive to acquire nuclear weapons. Both Democrats and Republicans have addressed the dangers of such a development and expressed support for a strong policy seeking to head it off.
But the tricky part is not to say that you don't want Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to have his finger on a nuclear button, but how to make sure it doesn't happen. Most Republicans have been eager to say that they won't take the military option off the table. Is such a threat credible? That's uncertain given both the military situation in Iraq, as well as the inherent difficulties of such an operation under even the most ideal circumstances.
Democrats have wavered on that point (John Edwards has come down, at times, on both sides of the question), but given the determinedly anti-war stands of all the Democrats, it isn't clear how any of them can win Democratic primary votes while contemplating using force against Iran.
And that, like the rest of the rhetoric about fighting the war on Islamist terrorism, is the crux of both parties problems in coping with the Middle East.
What Will They Do?
It is easy for all of them to wave the flag of devotion for Israel. And it is just as easy for candidates of either party to criticize the conduct of the war in Iraq.
But the crucial question facing the eventual winner in November 2008 is what they are going to do about Iran.
For now, like Bush, they can all pray that the Europeans and Russia will unite around a tough sanctions protocol that will turn the tide in Tehran. They can also hope that internal divisions in Iran will convince the mullahs who hold the power behind Ahmadinejad that they must turn back from a policy of confrontation.
But if none of that works and the day dawns some time in the next president's term in office when Iran will actually have the nuclear capability that they have pledged to use to destroy Israel and to threaten the rest of the West, then we must ask what these would-be presidents will actually do.
Will any of them have the mettle to face up to the challenge and to act to forestall catastrophe? Or will they weakly sit back and wait for futile diplomacy to defuse a crisis that will already be out of control?
And it is on that point — and not the usual pandering to pro-Israel sentiment — that friends of the Jewish state should judge the candidates. Heaven help us all if we choose incorrectly.