Yesterday, I explained at length why Efraim Halevy’s oddly partisan op-ed in the New York Times alleging that only Republicans have strong-armed Israel was as absurd as it was irrelevant to the question of whether President Obama should be re-elected. Nevertheless, some liberals have continued to circulate Halevy’s piece as if it was conclusive proof that Democrats are always good and Republicans are bad. As I pointed out, presidents from both parties have been pressuring the Jewish state since it was born. Even if we were to accept the former Mossad chief’s lame attempt to summarize the history of U.S.-Israel relations so as to focus only on episodes of tension when the GOP had the White House, it does nothing to answer the justified criticisms of President Obama’s undeniable record of pressure.
But there is one aspect of Halevy’s piece that is relevant this morning: his discussion of the way the George W. Bush administration hammered Israel into accepting the “road map” for Middle East peace in 2003 prior to the Iraq War. The prime mover behind that policy went unnamed in Halevy’s piece, but he is very much in the news today: former Secretary of State Colin Powell. To no one’s surprise, Powell endorsed President Obama for re-election. The former general had a number of reasons for backing the president, but by all accounts the most important one was distrust of the “neoconservatives” who advise Mitt Romney on foreign policy. Those who think criticism of the Bush administration’s attitude to Israel should inform the 2012 election need to understand that Powell — the most prominent critic of Israel on Bush’s team — is weighing in on the election largely because he doesn’t like the pro-Israel tone of the Romney campaign and endorses Obama’s policy of pressure. That puts Halevy’s “bad Republican” argument in a perspective that renders it useless to those supporting the president’s re-election.
In an administration where friendship for Israel and sympathy for its security concerns was the norm, Powell was a prominent skeptic about the Jewish state’s point of view about self-defense and the peace process. He was not happy about President Bush’s decision to give Israel a “green light” to take out Palestinian terror bases during the second intifada, and was a key player in the episode Halevy highlighted about the “road map.”
Powell’s antagonism for the neocons in the Bush administration is well known and is not limited to their disagreements about how the U.S. should treat Israel. But the point here is that Powell’s sympathy for Obama’s foreign policy stems in no small measure from their similar views about the Middle East. If the conceit of Halevy’s piece is that a vote for Mitt Romney is a vote for a repeat of the worst aspects of George W. Bush’s attitude toward Israel (as opposed to what every objective observer concedes was its overall stance of unflinching support), then Colin Powell’s endorsement demolishes it.
President Obama came into office determined to create some distance between the U.S. and Israel because he and his advisors thought the two countries had become too close under Bush. In doing so, he seemed to champion the stance that Powell, who was the loser in most Bush administration arguments about policy, had wished to pursue.
President Obama’s record deserves to be judged on its own merits, a point that Halevy ignored in his op-ed. But anyone who thinks concern about a return of Bush-era pressure on Israel is relevant to their decision in this election ought to take Powell’s views into consideration and understand that what he likes about Obama’s policies is precisely what supporters of Israel fear.