Commentary Magazine


Respecting Israel’s Democratic Process

If the world could vote in the 2012 American presidential election, according to a new poll of respondents in 32 countries, it would cast its electoral votes for Barack Obama over Mitt Romney. But according to the polls in Israel, the Jewish state would dissent, preferring Romney. Considering Obama’s treatment of Israel during his first term, this isn’t surprising. But Reuters today published an “analysis” insisting that those Israelis have nothing to worry about: there’s really no difference between the candidates.

The article notes that there is much continuity in American foreign policy, even when the White House changes parties. This is true. The article also notes that Obama has aligned his rhetoric on Israel with Romney’s, and that Romney has aligned his rhetoric on Iran with Obama’s. That is also true. So are Israelis just being silly, or is Reuters missing something? It is, of course, the latter. Reuters writes:

Most Israelis would be reassured if Mitt Romney won next week’s U.S. presidential election, feeling they had an unquestioning friend rather than a dispassionate critic in the White House.

But any change would probably be a question of style over substance, analysts say, with a Republican administration expected to follow the path already laid out by President Barack Obama when it comes to Iran and the Palestinians.

That’s the crux of the article, which obviously leaves out some points that are important to Israelis but not to Western media. There certainly has been a degree of policy continuity between Republican and Democratic administrations in recent memory. But there is one point on which there is a marked difference, and it is relevant now because Israelis are also heading into an election. And if past is prologue, that election will mean much to Israelis but not necessarily to the American president.

Of the last three presidents, two were Democrats and one a Republican. And far from respecting Israel’s electoral integrity, the two Democrats—Bill Clinton and Barack Obama—spent an offensive amount of time and effort trying to either bring down or change Israel’s elected governments. Clinton did so publicly and without shame, when Benjamin Netanyahu defeated Clinton’s preferred candidate, Shimon Peres, in the first election after Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination. Clinton interfered to get Peres elected, failed, and then spent the next few years sending his team to Israel to run Netanyahu out of office and replace him with Ehud Barak.

Obama was certainly less obsessed with running Netanyahu out of office, but as even Obama’s defenders on the left, like Jeffrey Goldberg, noticed, he was committed to the prospect of shaking up Israel’s Knesset to bring Kadima back to power.

George W. Bush, however, worked with three Israeli parties—Labor, Likud, and Kadima—that spanned the political spectrum. He felt no desire to challenge Israel’s voting public, and respected and worked with their choices. So it’s understandable that with their own election looming, Israelis are wary of an American president who may want them to have to vote again and again until, in his mind, they get it right. Israelis imagine that Romney, like Bush, will simply respect Israel’s democratic process.

On the Palestinian issue, Reuters may be correct that there wouldn’t be much of a change, but that is because Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority refuse to even consider resuming negotiations, so there could be no progress on that front anyway.

And on Iran, Reuters is right that Romney and Obama speak the same language. But Reuters seems to forget one possibility: that Israelis believe Romney, but don’t trust Obama. They may or may not be right to do so, but there’s no question that trust is a problem between the Obama administration and the Israeli government, as even Reuters acknowledges. It’s worth considering that the “daylight” Obama wanted to put between the two governments cost him the benefit of the doubt among many Israelis.