"President Obama has thrown allies like Israel under the bus." That's what Mitt Romney, Republican candidate for president, said in the high-profile speech accepting his party's nomination last week, repeating a slang phrase for sacrificing a friend for selfish reasons. Romney had deployed this phrase before, for example in May 2011 and Jan. 2012. This criticism of Obama fits a persistent Republican critique. Specifically, several other recent presidential candidates used or endorsed the same "bus" formulation vis-à-vis Obama and Israel, including Herman Cain in May 2011, Rick Perry in Sept. 2011, Newt Gingrich in Jan. 2012, and Rick Santorum in Feb. 2012.
Barack Obama pointed a finger at Binyamin Netanyahu in 2008.
These Republican attacks on Obama's relations with Israel have several important implications for U.S. foreign policy. First, out of the many Middle East-related issues, Israel, and Israel alone, retains a permanent role in U.S. electoral politics, influencing how a significant number of voters - not just Jews but also Arabs, Muslims, Evangelical Christians, conservatives and liberals – vote for president.
Second, attitudes toward Israel serve as a proxy for views toward other Middle Eastern issues: If I know your views on Israel, I have a good idea about your thinking on such topics as energy policy, Islamism, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, AKP-led Turkey, the Iranian nuclear build-up, intervention in Libya, the Mohamed Morsi presidency in Egypt, and the Syrian civil war.
Third, the Republican criticism of Obama points to a sea-change in what determines attitudes toward Israel. Religion was once the key, with Jews the ardent Zionists and Christians less engaged. Today, in contrast, the determining factor is political outlook. To discern someone's views on Israel, the best question to ask is not "What is your religion?" but "Who do you want for president?" As a rule, conservatives feel more warmly toward Israel and liberals more coolly. Polls show conservative Republicans to be the most ardent Zionists, followed by Republicans in general, followed by independents, Democrats, and lastly liberal Democrats. Yes, Ed Koch, the former mayor of New York City, also said, in Sept. 2011, that Obama "threw Israel under the bus," but Koch, 87, represents the fading old guard of the Democratic party. The difference between the parties in the Arab-Israeli conflict is becoming as deep as their differences on the economy or on cultural issues.
Big smiles between Mitt Romney and Binyamin Netanyahu, friends since 1976, in July 2012.
Fourth, as Israel increasingly becomes an issue dividing Democrats from Republicans, I predict a reduction of the bipartisan support for Israel that has provided Israel a unique status in U.S. politics and sustained organizations like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. I also predict that Romney and Paul Ryan, as mainstream conservatives, will head an administration that will be the warmest ever to Israel, far surpassing the administrations of both Bill Clinton or George W. Bush. Contrarily, should Obama be re-elected, the coldest treatment of Israel ever by a U.S. president will follow.
Obama's constipated record of the past 3½ years vis-à-vis Israel on such topics as the Palestinians and Iran leads to this conclusion; but so does what we know about his record before he entered high electoral politics in 2004, especially his associations with radical anti-Zionists. For example, Obama deferentially listened to Edward Said in May 1998 and sat quietly by at a going-away party in 2003 for former PLO flack Rashid Khalidi as Israel was accused of terrorism against Palestinians. (In contrast, Romney has been friends with Binyamin Netanyahu since 1976.)
Screenshot of Obama looking worshipfully at Edward Said.
Also revealing is what Ali Abunimah
, a Chicago-based anti-Israel extremist, wrote about his last conversation with Obama in early 2004, as the latter was in the midst of a primary campaign for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate. Abunimah wrote that Obama warmly greeted him and then added: "Hey, I'm sorry I haven't said more about Palestine right now, but we are in a tough primary race. I'm hoping when things calm down I can be more up front." More: referring to Abunimah's attacks on Israel in the Chicago Tribune
and elsewhere, Obama encouraged him with "Keep up the good work!"
When one puts this in the context of what Obama said off-mic to then-Russian president Dmitry Medvedev in March 2012 ("This is my last election. And after my election, I have more flexibility") and in the context of Obama's dislike for Netanyahu, it would be wise to assume that, if Obama wins on Nov. 6, things will "calm down" for him and he finally can "be more up front" about so-called Palestine. Then Israel's troubles will really begin.
Mr. Pipes (www.DanielPipes.org) is president of the Middle East Forum. © 2012 by Daniel Pipes. All rights reserved.
Sep. 5, 2012 update: Before the Democrats restored mention of Jerusalem as Israel's capital to its party platform, Romney called the omission "very troubling" and "one more example of Israel being thrown under the bus by the president."
Sep. 16, 2012 update:Appearing on NBC's Meet the Press, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu twice avoided answering the question of whether Obama throws Israel "under the bus" or not, finally relenting the third time. Of course, he had to deny the charge, which does not enhance Mitt Romney's credibility.
Meet the Press: Governor Romney for a year, and he said it in his convention speech, has said, "President Obama has thrown allies like Israel under the bus." Do you agree or disagree with Governor Romney's charge? It's a serious charge.
Binyamin Netanyahu: Well, you're trying to get me into the American election. and I'm not going to do that. the relationship between Israel and the United States is just a very powerful bond. It was, it is, and will be. and will continue to be. and I can tell you there's no one—there's no leader in the world who's more appreciative than me of the strength of this alliance. it's very strong. There's no one in Israel who appreciates more than me the importance of American support for Israel. It's not a partisan issue. In fact, we cherish the bipartisan support of Democrats and Republicans alike. This is critical for us.
Meet the Press: … It seems to me for you to remain silent on whether this administration has thrown Israel under the bus is tantamount to agreeing with the sentiment. So where do you come down on that specific charge against President Obama ?
Binyamin Netanyahu: There you go again, David, trying to draw me into something that is something not the case and is not my position. my position is that we have strong cooperation and we continue to cooperate with the best of allies. And Israel is the one reliable ally of the United States in the Middle East .
Meet the Press: President Obama has not thrown Israel under the bus?
Binyamin Netanyahu: There's no bus, and we're not going to get into that discussion, except to say one thing. We have a strong alliance, and we're going to continue to have a strong alliance. I think the important question is where does the—the only bus that is really important is the Iranian nuclear bus. That's the one that we have to derail. And that's my interest. That's my only interest.
David Gregory and Binyamin Netanyahu on "Meet the Press," Sep. 16, 2012.
Mar. 20, 2013 update:Abunimah has just posted a picture of the whole gang - himself, the Khalidis, the Obamas, and the Saids - at a Chicago dinner.
Obama and his anti-Zionist friends: Abunimah, Khalidi, and Said.