American elections and the Middle East
As seems to have become almost normal now, the approach of the American elections has produced a necessity for candidates to demonstrate their loyalty to the cause of Israel in the continuing encounters with which that country is faced, or has involved itself, in the Middle East.
This year, as the election date approaches, Republican candidate Mitt Romney has chosen to make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem to vow perpetual commitment to Israel in the event that he becomes President. Such pilgrimages have become a standard necessity for candidates as they seek to appease the so-called Jewish American vote, in their search for support. As a Republican, Romney has got off the mark early (even before being officially selected as the Republican candidate), conscious of the fact that the Democrats usually have the support of the majority of Jewish Americans. And indeed he knows that at this point President Obama, while not having done anything that the Israelis might have considered particularly beneficial to them during his tenure, maintains that tradition of leadership by a poll margin of 68% to Romney’s 25% among Jewish voters.
So Romney has, almost inevitably, decided that he would have to say, or do something spectacular, while simultaneously pleasing to the Israeli government and population, so as to enhance his support at home. And his visit has produced declarations first, that he definitively believes the old hornet’s nest that Jerusalem, and not Tel Aviv, should be the capital of Israel, knowing full well that this would annoy Arab, and particularly Palestine, opinion, and knowing also that although there is a 1995 US Congressional resolution to that effect, no American President has publicly committed himself to it.
Secondly, he has basically supported a statement by one of his operatives to the effect that as American President he would support a unilateral Israeli strike against Iran if it produced, or obtained nuclear weapons. Arguing that “we must not delude ourselves into thinking that containment is an option,” he used the euphemism that the US and Israel must use “any and all measures” to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear capability.
As has become almost a norm, Romney has found himself trying to argue away the inevitable charge from the Democratic opposition that he is actually suggesting that the US government would support an Israeli attack on Iran. And in doing this, he has, by implication, been suggesting that this would be no different from the occasion on which Israel did bomb what it believed to be a nuclear facility under construction in Syria. The result has been the stirring up of controversy, something Romney would surely have been wanting to avoid, after his embarrassing “I didn’t say what you think I was saying” experiences in London last week that were interpreted as hostile by the British government and people.
Of course, the object of Romney’s hardline statements in Israel, is to reduce the gap between himself and President Obama by suggesting that the latter is too timid in his support for Israel, and is seeking to place Israel and the Arab countries on a par in terms of America’s diplomatic and practical commitment. He is aware that the President, over the period of his rule, has chosen to do two things in the Middle East. First to suggest, as indicated in 2009 still early in his presidency, in a major speech in Cairo, that the United States would be committed to supporting democratic rule in the area, including the participation of groups, like the Muslim Brotherhood, which have been long suppressed.
Obama had reinforced this position in the last year, by more than discreetly supporting the uprisings in the Middle East, and particularly in Egypt, to the extent that they would not lean in the direction of extreme radicalism. American diplomacy in relation to the popular uprising in Yemen had indicated the path that his administration wished to follow.
Secondly, Obama has consistently refused to encourage the threat of the use of force to induce the Iranians to give up what is believed to be the militarization of its nuclear capabilities. But the threat of force is a major weapon in the effort by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel to keep his own political party and domestic coalition relationships intact. Romney obviously believes that this has support among Jewish Americans, though he must know that a reasonably large section of that community is of liberal orientation in both domestic and international affairs.
In spite of this, however, Obama, in his search for re-election, is seeking to make sure that there is no perception of lack of commitment of the United States to Israel’s insistence that the Iranians should not be allowed to possess nuclear weapons. His Secretary of State and other officials preceded Romney last week in the Middle East and in Israel in particular. Mrs Clinton sought to reassure the Israelis that “all elements of American power” are at the disposal of the American President on the nuclear issue. And she has sought to negate an implied Romney position that there is any substantial difference of approach between the US and the Israeli government, or any lack of commitment to the Israeli goals vis-à-vis Iran.
President Obama is, of course well aware, that his government’s preoccupation with the Israeli-Iran nuclear issue is not the only one that it has at the present time. Of equal pre-eminence is what the US believes to be a task of ensuring that the so-called “Arab spring” moves in what the administration believes to be the right direction. So Clinton was as equally concerned with developments in Egypt since the presidential elections there, as well as the implications for Sunni-Shi’ite relations in the broader Middle East as the cauldron boils in Syria, and small but presently critical monarchical states like Bahrain come under challenge from democratic forces.
For the American administration, none of these issues must be at boiling point as November approaches. But they are well aware that Romney almost has an interest in seeing things at a point that can give him leverage for continued criticism of Obama’s diplomacy in the Middle East.
Whether Romney’s political sophistication will improve in a manner that allows him to exploit any such possibilities is, however, still open to question. His criticism, and then withdrawal of it, of the government of the US’s main NATO ally, Great Britain, does not suggest that he is learning fast enough.