Something interesting has been happening in British politics this year that ought to gain the attention of Americans, including those who generally have no interest in the subject.
What has happened is that Britain's opposition Conservative Party has struck up an unlikely alliance with the left wing of the governing Labor Party on the issue of the Middle East. The Tories, whose leadership in recent decades have been broadly sympathetic toward Israel — though not nearly as friendly as American conservatives — have decided to throw the Jewish state under the proverbial double-decker bus as they seek to return to power.
Recently, William Hague, the Tory spokesman on foreign affairs, denounced Israel's war of self-defense against Lebanon-based Hezbollah terrorists. Hague's use of the canard about "disproportionate" Israeli counterattacks on terrorists — and the endorsement of the statement by Party leader David Cameron — was a signal that the Conservatives, whose standing in the British polls makes them a real threat to unseat Labor in the next election, would not allow their foes to paint them as too friendly to Israel.
The Tory's decision to flip on Israel took place at the same time that British Prime Minister Tony Blair was forced by his Labor followers to walk the plank and announce that he would finally leave office next year. Though Blair has been damaged by his support for the war in Iraq, it appears that the straw that broke the camel's back for the Labor rank-and-file was his backing for Israel during its war with Hezbollah.
What all this means is that although British support for Israel has been tepid even at its height, an era in which the last three prime ministers (Conservatives Margaret Thatcher and John Major, and then Blair) had been backers of the Jewish state, and desirous of Jewish votes on that basis, is likely over. The large Muslim vote is up for grabs — seemingly making hostility to Israel a consensus position in British politics.
What has that to do with anything going on here? The answer is perhaps more than many of us think.
The loudest debate going on in the American Jewish world the last couple of months has to do with the renewed attempt of the Republican Party to make inroads among Jewish voters on the basis of its support for Israel, and what it contends is the less than exemplary record of its Democratic foes.
To that end, the Republican Jewish Coalition — a Jewish GOP support group — has been placing ads in Jewish publications around the country skewering the Democrats and painting their own party as the good guys on Israel.
The reaction from large segments of a Jewish community, in which the overwhelming majority of its members are reliable supporters of the Democrats, has been emotional and angry. They are appalled at the idea that Republicans would have the chutzpah to ask for their votes. The point isn't so much that they reject the content of the ads, but that they consider the entire exercise to be illegitimate.
Many seem to be echoing the line from the classic Broadway musical "Fiorello," in which the victory of a Republican congressional candidate in a Democratic district is greeted with dismay. Like that victory of future New York City mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, many Jews think the GOP ads "just ain't democratic."
Of course, perspective on the merit of the ads is obviously dependent on political affiliation.
The Republicans have a fair point when they note that anti-Israel leftists, such as those affiliated with the MoveOn.org group, have real pull within the Democratic Party these days. By comparison, anti-Israel figures on the right, like the odious Pat Buchanan, are bereft of influence in the current GOP. Moreover, the decline of the hawkish "Scoop Jackson" wing of the Democratic Party was finalized this past summer with the rejection of Sen. Joseph Lieberman by Connecticut Democrats.
Nevertheless, the Democrats are also right to point out that attempts to tar their party as anti-Israel are not true. Support for Israel is a bipartisan affair, and that Democratic Party leaders, as well as the overwhelming majority of their caucus in both the House and the Senate, are genuine backers.
What Jewish Democrats do need to do is to confront the strain of anti-Zionism growing on the left and in the anti-war movement, and ensure that it is kept out of the mainstream of their party. That is a task that will be even more important if, as seems likely, the Democrats prevail in next month's congressional elections.
But Democrats claim that GOP attempts to use Israel as a wedge issue will undermine the bipartisan consensus on the issue. Some go even further and assert that by identifying support for Israel with the Bush administration, the ads may have the effect of making it less attractive for Democrats and liberals to sympathize with an Israel that is linked with a president and a party that they hate.
Keep Them Accountable
What Democrats seem to want is for the entire issue to be taken off the table. That would give them a tactical advantage, but behind it lies the dubious notion that holding either party accountable for their performance on Middle East issues is itself somehow not kosher.
Flash back to 1992, when Democrats made hay over the contemptible policies and behavior of the administration of the first President Bush and his Secretary of State James Baker. Then, there was no question that Israel was an issue — and one that would cost the Republicans votes.
Taking Israel off the table today is no more legitimate a stance than a call for keeping church-state separation off the agenda would be on the part of Republicans. And if anyone thinks that having a conservative president support Israel will turn off liberals, maybe the problem is more with the liberals than the president.
No matter which party you support, what we should strive for is accountability from them. And the only way to hold political parties accountable is to make them pay for mistakes or to reward them for good behavior at the ballot box. By contrast, if a key issue is taken out of the discussion, the parties will inevitably stop prioritizing it.
Those currently calling for Israel to be eliminated from our debates should peek across the Atlantic to see what a country where appeals to pro-Israel sentiments have been sidelined looks like.
As different as Britain is from the United States, if there is a bipartisan consensus in support of Israel in this country, it is because the two major parties have spent the last 30 years or so actually competing for Jewish votes on this basis. The moment we tell them to stop will be the time when those who would break the consensus will have a leg up. As was the case in Britain, there are other constituencies that are all too eager to step in and give politicians a reason to switch sides.
So let the parties debate which is the most ardent supporter of Israel. It may be messy, but it beats the alternative.