It is far too easily forgotten that, in 1992, Bill Clinton ran against George HW Bush from the right on Israel. Bush had opposed a $10bn loan guarantee programme for Israel on the basis that the money could be used to further continue settlement construction in the West Bank and Gaza, which peaked at 7,750 new homes per annum by the end of the hardline Shamir administration. Clinton criticised the need to link these loans to curbing the growth of settlements, and Bush’s proposal to withhold the money until after the elections in Israel.
By August 1992 Bush relented, ratifying the loans without provisos regarding the settlements, but the damage was done. His share on the Jewish vote collapsed from 35 per cent in the victorious 1988 election to an abysmal 12 per cent in 1992, a ballot he lost. Although Clinton was popular amongst American Jews for his economic and social ideas, namely that “without a growing economy, without a strong, stable and secure American middle class, America’s commitment to Israel will always be under pressure,” it is also the case that Clinton weakened Bush’s standing by adopting a hawkish stance on the loan guarantees and Israel’s security.
Now Mitt Romney—who recently swung through Israel, meeting Benjamin Netanyahu and holding a fundraising breakfast at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem—is Xeroxing the Clinton playbook, stressing the need for a new economic agenda at home whilst attacking Obama for having “thrown Israel under the bus,” to use his favourite refrain. Romney told the Veterans of Foreign Wars National Convention in Reno, Nevada on the Tuesday before his visit that the “people of Israel deserve better than what they have received from the leader of the free world. And the chorus of accusations, threats, and insults at the United Nations should never again include the voice of the President of the United States.”
In his platform, Romney pillories Obama for having “repeatedly and unilaterally created new preconditions for restarting peace talks,” and for believing that “distancing the United States from Israel was a smart move that would earn us credits in the Arab world and somehow bring peace closer.” Rather, the United States “needs a president who will not be a fair-weather friend of Israel” for she is the “closest ally in the Middle East and a beacon of democracy and freedom in the region.” The intent is clear: Romney wishes to make Obama appear weak on Israel in order to nibble away at the Jewish vote, one of the latter’s strongest and most steadfast bases of support during his transformative 2008 electoral campaign.
But Romney’s tactics with regard to Israel share with Clinton’s 1992 run against Bush the same need to distort the truth in order to make their case. At the time, Clinton’s campaign literature pledged that his administration would “never let Israel down,” implying that during the loan guarantee fiasco, Bush had done just that. It is certainly the case that the Bush administration had its faults when it came to relations with the Jewish community: his cabinet and inner circle was WASPish and Judenrein, and it could never shake off the alleged remark of his Secretary of State, James Baker, “Fuck the Jews: They didn’t vote for us anyway.”
But when it came to Israel itself, Bush was a good friend and solid partner. As vice-president to Ronald Reagan, he was pivotal to the success of Operation Joshua, during which 484 Ethiopian Jews were rescued from refugee camps in the Sudan and airlifted to the safety of Israel. In the Oval Office, Bush arranged the 1991 Madrid peace conference, the precursor to the essential Oslo Accords (1993) which made concrete steps towards peace in the region through the creation of the Palestinian Authority. His administration also successfully lobbied the United Nations regarding the repeal of Resolution 3379, which determined that Zionism was “a form of racism and racial discrimination.” Heightened tensions in the Middle East related to the Gulf War led to a cementation and heightening of military and security cooperation between Israel and the United States, including the deployment of the MIM-104 Patriot surface-to-air missiles, necessary to the country’s safety during the liberation of Kuwait as Saddam Hussein rained Scuds down upon Tel Aviv.
If anything, when it comes to joint military strategy, Israel and the United States are closer how than they were under George HW Bush or any other previous administration. In an address in Jerusalem made on Tisha B’Av, the high holy day which denotes the destruction of the First and Second Temples, Romney remarked that “diplomatic distance that is public and critical emboldens Israel’s adversaries,” building upon his theme that relations between Israel and the United States have degraded during Obama’s presidency.
Yet the day before Romney left for Israel, Obama signed off on an additional $70 million in funding for Israel’s missile defence system, the Iron Dome, which has since its installation intercepted nearly 80 per cent of the rockets fired from the Gaza Strip. As Vice President Biden rightly noted in his riposte to Romney, the United States has provided record levels of security assistance, including “close collaboration on longer range missile defence systems, the largest joint military exercises in history, and the most consistent and comprehensive exchanges ever between our top political, defence, security and intelligence officials.”
And on the subject of peace, Obama’s positions in public and private are a mirror image of those maintained by George W Bush’s administration. Romney unleashed his tortured and ill-lettered bus analogy after the President declared openly that the border of Israel and future Palestine in any final status agreement “should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually-agreed swaps.” But in 2008, George W Bush stated that there should indeed be “an end to the occupation that began in 1967” and that any peace accord would require “mutually-agreed adjustments to the armistice lines of 1949 to reflect current realities and to ensure that the Palestinian state is viable and contiguous.” Under Obama as under Bush, then, the United States has supported in public and private the creation of a Palestinian state, using the Green Line as the starting point for negotiations.
Romney’s flagrant mendacity on Israel, therefore, is scandalous. It is nothing more than an electoral ploy designed to frighten more conservative elements of the Jewish community into abandoning Obama in favour of his own campaign. American foreign policy towards Israel has remained unchanged for twelve years through the second Bush and Obama administrations, and continues to reflect the United States’s longstanding commitment to Israel’s existential security. Obama’s United States-Israel Enhanced Security Cooperation Act even reaffirms “the enduring commitment of the United States to the security of the State of Israel as a Jewish state.” To say that he has “thrown Israel under the bus,” or any other means of public transportation for that matter, is nothing but a cheap lie, and Romney should show some shame for saying it.