Jews, as a group, tend to worry, and right up there on the current angst chart is the American election. Unfortunately, the visceral distress is justified.
President George W. Bush’s foreign-policy record is plain. He was the first American president to sideline Yasser Arafat and to state unequivocally that support for terrorism could no longer coexist with the status of peace partner and entitlement to American largess. In a speech on June 24, 2002, the president said: “Peace requires a new and different Palestinian leadership, so that a Palestinian state can be born. I call on the Palestinian people to elect new leaders, leaders not compromised by terror.”
President Bush made it clear that the Israeli fight against terrorism is not a localized dilemma but rather part of the same war being waged by Americans against global terrorism. On March 27, 2002, the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations was made to include for the first time the Al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade, the generic name for all of Arafat’s Fatah field operatives, including Tanzim.
The greatest threat to Israel’s security, Iran, was named by President Bush in his 2002 State of the Union Address as part of an “axis of evil” and hence a central enemy of the United States and world peace.
On May 6, 2002, President Bush withdrew President Clinton’s signature from the treaty establishing an International Criminal Court. The court’s statute takes direct aim at Israelis by omitting terrorism but including settlements in its definition of the world’s most egregious crimes, and by grabbing jurisdiction over nationals of countries that are not party to the treaty.
In his speech to the U.N. General Assembly on September 21, 2004, the president looked leaders from all Arab and Muslim states directly in the eye and said: “Arab states should end incitement in their own media, cut off public and private funding for terrorism, and establish normal relations with Israel.”
Throughout his tenure, President Bush has been under serious pressure to cede greater control over the Middle East peace process to the European Union and the U.N., and to buy into their familiar refrain that the Israeli occupation is the root cause of Arab and militant Islamic terrorism. The EU and U.N. seek American support for the view that the “Israeli-Palestinian conflict” is the greatest challenge to international order (as British foreign minister Jack Straw told the Labour party’s recent annual conference), and American help in pushing Israel into major concessions while under fire.
President Bush has responded by telling the U.N. and EU members that they’ve got it backwards. The greatest challenge to international order is the absence of democracy, and the breeding grounds for terrorism that result. Moving forward means–in the words of the president’s recent U.N. speech–that “we must take a different approach” from that of tolerating and excusing “oppression in the Middle East in the name of stability…. Commitment to democratic reform is essential to resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict. Peace will not be achieved by Palestinian rulers who intimidate opposition, tolerate corruption, and maintain ties to terrorist groups.”
President Bush’s stand has not been without political costs. As he pointed out in the second presidential debate: “You know, I’ve made some decisions on Israel that are unpopular. I wouldn’t deal with Arafat, because I felt like he had let the former president down, and I don’t think he’s the kind of person that can lead toward a Palestinian state. And people in Europe didn’t like that decision. And that was unpopular, but it was the right thing to do.”
It is not surprising, therefore, that Israelis prefer President Bush to Senator Kerry 50 to 24 percent, according to a Haaretz poll released October 15, 2004.
On the other hand, a Pew Research Center survey released in March of this year showed large majorities of Pakistanis (67 percent), Jordanians (96 percent), and Moroccans (90 percent) hold unfavorable opinions of the president. A poll released by the Arab American Institute in May shows that the vast majority of Arabs in Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates view American policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict unfavorably. The Iranian Tehran Times proclaimed in June, “Kerry is exactly what the U.S. needs right now.” Israeli military intelligence chief Maj.-Gen. Aharon Zeevi told Israeli cabinet ministers in July that “Arafat is waiting for the month of November in the hope that President Bush will be defeated. At the same time, the Pew and Zogby data show that sizeable portions of the Arab populations surveyed are favorably disposed to Osama bin Laden.
Where does all this leave American Jews who have traditionally voted overwhelmingly for Democrats? Some are primarily guided by one part of the Jewish sage Hillel’s teaching that “If I am only for myself, what am I?” They reason that a Democratic president would better serve the interests of minorities and the little guy, and that there is something inherently wrong about thinking of their own well-being first. Others think, “I’m a minority too and we little guys need to stick together.” Still others don’t care about Israel, or at least not enough to make it a deciding factor; other issues, such as the state of the ozone layer and the Kyoto protocol, top their agenda.
One might think 9/11 should have been a turning point for the 1.5 million Jews in New York City, along with the rest of American Jews, even if they hadn’t noticed that Israel has been on the front lines of the war against terror for a lot longer than they have. Now that America and Israel more clearly face a common enemy, American Jews might feel less guilt-ridden about the other element of Hillel’s admonition: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”
In a world in which the future of freedom-loving little guys everywhere depends on whether America understands the fight against terrorism to be a global war, violent Islamic fundamentalism and a nuclear Iran to be global threats, and winning European and U.N. friends by serving up Israel to be pouring fuel on the fire, one presidential candidate has a courageous and principled record. The other scores debating points.
So the question for American Jews deciding whether to vote for a Republican president, in Hillel’s words, is, “If not now when?” If the answer for most American Jews is never, then make no mistake about it: No Democratic president will ever feel that protecting the state of Israel is necessary to win Jewish votes–and no future Republican president will ever take the heat as President Bush has done.
–Anne Bayefsky is an international lawyer and a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.