American Jews and the Mideast

"Shalom, chaver" ("Good-bye, friend") was president Bill Clinton's memorable refrain at slain Israeli leader Yitzhak Rabin's funeral. And few things have demonstrated so clearly the profound link between the Israeli people and America as the "Shalom, Chaver" bumper stickers that showed up on Israeli cars after a right-wing Jew murdered the prime minister, in November 1995.

Twelve years later, the tatters of these bumper stickers can still be seen on the backs of autos, even as the Israeli nation drives aimlessly into the 40th year of a tragic occupation over the Palestinians. But the bumper stickers were more than an artifact of binational friendship; they were also a populist statement by a large number of Israelis that Bill Clinton understood them, and a thank-you to Clinton for trying to assist Rabin in bringing peace to the region.

Candidates running in the current presidential election would do well to remember the impact Clinton had on the Israeli public. They'd do equally well to recall the impact the Clinton presidency had on the American Jewish community, which fully embraced the agenda of the last Democratic chief executive, giving Clinton nearly 78 percent support in his 1996 reelection. Why was this so?

It wasn't simply that Clinton spoke with authority and compassion about the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, which he did. It wasn't simply that he personally tried to resolve the impasse, which he did. It wasn't simply that he appeared genuine in his affection for Israel, which he did. It was also that he represented the very same liberal sensibility that American Jews have clung to ever since they became an important voting bloc. And that support for a liberal agenda among American Jews has only strengthened since -- precisely because George W. Bush has moved the domestic agenda so far toward the Christian right, embracing an ideology that is not only antithetical to the vast majority of American Jews but actually threatens their sense of freedom in this country.

And yet the playbooks of the current crop of presidential candidates, even one named Clinton, seem utterly uninformed by this history. The sole exception has been Bill Richardson, who mentioned that he would consider bringing former Secretary of State James Baker (the bête noir of more conservative-leaning Jews) back on board to get things moving in the Middle East. Perhaps Richardson -- as a former negotiator himself, and with nowhere to go but up in the polls -- was willing to take the gamble.

Thankfully, the candidates' pandering has -- so far, at least -- been kept to a minimum. As of this writing, for instance, there's been no mention of moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, to the empty plot of land in Israel's capital, that perennial favorite of U.S. presidential candidates. But there also has been no forceful articulation of the present reality facing Israel.

The fact is that 40 years after the 1967 War, which did threaten Israel's survival, Israel's survival is threatened once again. The current threat doesn't come from Hamas terrorism or even Iran; it comes from Israel's failure to extricate itself from the occupied territories in a manner that will ensure its security and future as a Jewish and democratic state -- a threat that surely harms U.S. interests in the region as well.

Former President Clinton has not been afraid to make this point to numerous American Jewish audiences, and the current crop of presidential candidates should follow suit. A robust and realistic revival of international engagement, completely missing from the current administration, would be welcomed by most American Jews -- not just because of their concern for Israel but also in the interest of ending genocide in Darfur, alleviating poverty in Africa, and strengthening America's standing in the world. Indeed, Israel's ability to finally live in peace in its neighborhood depends on a more robust U.S. internationalism overall. If the next U.S. president can assist Israel in gaining acceptance by much of the Arab world, that president will leave a legacy of a more secure Israel.

As in years past, the majority of American Jews will likely vote for the Democratic candidate -- any Democratic candidate -- more due to his or her embrace of a liberal domestic agenda than for any particular position on Israel. The fact is, those American Jews who are hard-liners on Israel simply don't represent the majority of American Jews. Unfortunately, they do lead the chorus, and therefore drive the debate. But that chorus is not infinitely expandable, and the loudest voices shouldn't mislead the presidential candidates into staying silent on Israel's real options for peace.

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