Author, Lecturer, Ethicist

Israel, the Middle East and the 2016 Election

Precisely 100 years ago – in the election of 1916 - Jewish voters, for the first time in American history, cast a majority of their votes for the Democratic presidential candidate – in this instance, New Jersey Governor Woodrow Wilson, who defeated the former New York Governor Charles Evans Hughes (who had resigned his seat on the U.S. Supreme Court in order to run) by the close margin of 49%-46%. Wilson did even better with Jewish voters, who cast a full 55% of their votes for the former Princeton College President. Ever since then, Jews have been voting for Democratic presidential candidates in overwhelming numbers. Over the past 100 years, Jewish support for Democratic presidential candidates has ranged from a high of 90% in the elections of 1944 (FDR vs. Thomas Dewey) and 1964 (LBJ vs. Barry Goldwater) to a low of 46% in 1980 (Jimmy Carter vs. Ronald Reagan). For the most part, Jewish voters have defied the accepted socio-historic understanding that as a group advances and becomes more economically successful and socially integrated, its members tend to vote more for Republican candidates than for Democrats. Not so for Jews; this aberration was perhaps best summed up by the late sociographer Milton Himmelfarb, who noted in his famous but nowadays politically incorrect aphorism, that “Jews earn like Episcopalians but vote like Puerto Ricans.”

Over the past 17 election cycles (going back to the four-way 1948 race between the incumbentPresident Harry Truman, New York Governor Thomas Dewey (R) Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond and former Vice President Henry Wallace who ran as a member of the Progressive Party – one of the most important – if indeed, not the most important - issues for Jewish voters was the candidates’ and parties’ positions with respect to Israel and the Middle East.  In a normal election cycle, Israel – along with a host of other issues both foreign and domestic – would not only be well-known, well discussed and perhaps even well-debated – but would form a major determinant of how an individual would cast his or her vote. And up until recently, as already noted, the vast majority of Jewish voters have found greater comfort and security in casting votes for Democrats rather than Republicans: Mondale over Reagan; Dukakis and Bill Clinton over George Bush, Sr.; Clinton over Dole; Gore over George Bush the younger, and Barack Obama over both John McCain and Mitt Romney.

Over the past generation, with the emergence of Evangelical Christians as a conservative political force, the Republican Party has become more stridently and vocally pro-Israel than ever before. Indeed, in 2016, the largest pro-Israel group in the United States is Christian, not Jewish. As a partial result, the percentage of Jews voting for Republican presidential candidates – although still a decided minority – has risen: from 16% for Bob Dole in 1992 to 24% for George W. Bush in 2004 to a full 30% for Mitt Romney in 2012. Much of this increase has come from the Orthodox community which tends to be more socially conservative than Conservative, Reform and non-affiliated American Jews.  (In a wry twist on Himmelfarb's aphorism, writer Ari Goldman noted "Orthodox Jews live like Puerto Ricans and vote like Billionaires.") And due to the fact that America’s posture and position with regards to Israel and the Middle East has become of increasing interest and importance to non-Jewish voters – for reasons which may or may not be the same as for Jews – the debates, speeches and position statements have been more widely disseminated then during presidential campaigns in the past. In other words, comments and promises about Israel – the broadcasting of one’s Jewish State bona fides – are no longer brought up just before Jewish groups. Instead they have become a staple for both parties’ candidates in speeches and appearances from Bangor to Bakersfield, and from Sarasota to Seattle. This has become more or less de rigueur in a normal presidential election year.

But as everyone reading this essay understands, 2016 is not a normal presidential election year. Going as far back as a year ago, it was obvious that this election would be different – that we would be going where no national election had ever gone before. Consider that:

  • This would be the first time in American history that the American people would be voting to replace an African-American president -  and one whom a narrow majority of one party still considered to be illegitimate.
  • The Democrats would be making history by likely nominating either the first woman or first Jew to ever run for President on a major party ticket.
  • The Republicans would also likely be making history by nominating either the first Hispanic, first physician, first woman or first candidate without any prior political, governmental or military experience to be their standard-bearer.

Add to all this, the incredible growth in the 24-hour news cycle and the 140keystroke tweets which have shaped so much of modern society, and it was obvious that 2016 was going to be different.  

And now that we have the two major parties' nominees on board, we still have several firsts: besides the first woman candidate and first individual who is, from a political/governmental point of view virgo intacta (Latin for "anuntouched virgin"), we have two candidates who both have Jewish sons-in-law.  

Where in previous presidential elections, candidates would present their vision, worldview and the specifics of how they would, in an ideal world, deal with the economy, create jobs, protect the nation and exercise leadership, this campaign has, far more than any in American history, devolved into a food fight. Much of the political oxygen which heretofore provided the atmosphere for lively debate and the presentation of platform and position, has been all but been sucked up; this election has turned into the political version of a ten-car pile-up on the interstate – something ghastly and horrendous which holds our attention even as it nauseates our soul. Instead of intelligent discussions on jobs and the economy, war and peace, jobs and the environment we have, up to the middle of August, been fed a steady stream of charges and counter charges, of questions of mental stability, honesty, temperament and patriotism, and whether one – if not both – of the candidates should be headed for a penitentiary rather than the presidency.

As a result of all this, the issue of Israel and the Middle East has rarely, if ever been given a coherent airing. As a result, the best we can do at this point is review what the candidates – Mr. Trump and Secretary Clinton and the parties they lead - have said and written about this crucial set of issues. Let’s review, in brief, what the candidates have said in their most recent speeches before AIPAC (The American Israel Public Affairs Committee), what they said in their speeches accepting their party’s presidential nomination, and how their respective party’s national platforms address issues dealing with Israel, the Middle East and America’s role in the world. We begin with the speeches Mr. Trump and Secretary Clinton delivered before AIPAC on March 21 of this year.

First, a sampling of what Mr. Trump told the overflow gathering:

  • My number-one priority is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran.The problem here is fundamental. We’ve rewarded the world’s leading state sponsor of terror with $150 billion, and we received absolutely nothing in return. I’ve studied this issue in great detail, I would say actually greater by far than anybody else. Iran is a very big problem and will continue to be. But if I’m not elected president, I know how to deal with trouble. And believe me, that’s why I’m going to be elected president, folks.
  • We will totally dismantle Iran’s global terror network which is big and powerful, but not powerful like us.
  • When I’m president, believe me, I will veto any attempt by the U.N. to impose its will on the Jewish state. It will be vetoed 100 percent. You see, I know about deal-making. That’s what I do. I wrote “The Art of the Deal." When I become president, the days of treating Israel like a second-class citizen will end on day one.

It should also be noted that earlier, in an address before members of the Jewish Republican Coalition, Mr. Trump caused quite a stir when he opened his remarks by informing the group “You’re not gonna support me because I don’t want your money” and then referred to everyone in the room as fellow “negotiators,” which some thought came dangerously close to brandishing a Jewish stereotype.  He then said he planned to be “sort of a neutral guy” on peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.  And, in an interview with the Associated Press,  he placed the burden of a peace deal firmly with Israel. “A lot will have to do with Israel and whether or not Israel wants to make the deal – whether or not Israel’s willing to sacrifice certain things.”

Next, a sampling of what Secretary Clinton said at the same AIPAC gathering:

  • As we gather here, three evolving threats — Iran’s continued aggression, a rising tide of extremism across a wide arc of instability, and the growing effort to de-legitimize Israel on the world stage — are converging to make the U.S.-Israel alliance more indispensable than ever. The United States and Israel must be closer than ever, stronger than ever and more determined than ever to prevail against our common adversaries and to advance our shared values.
  • I believe we must take our alliance to the next level. I hope a new 10-year defense memorandum of understanding is concluded as soon as possible to meet Israel’s security needs far into the future. I will send a delegation from the Pentagon and the joint chiefs to Israel for early consultations. Let’s also expand our collaboration beyond security. Together, we can build an even more vibrant culture of innovation that tightens the links between Silicon Valley and Israeli tech companies and entrepreneurs.
  • We need steady hands, not a president who says he’s neutral on Monday, pro-Israel on Tuesday, and who knows what on Wednesday, because everything’s negotiable. I feel so strongly that America can’t ever be neutral when it comes to Israel’s security or survival. We can’t be neutral when rockets rain down on residential neighborhoods, when civilians are stabbed in the street, when suicide bombers target the innocent. Some things aren’t negotiable.
  • With regards to the Iran Nuclear Deal, It’s not good enough to trust and verify. Our approach must be distrust and verify. This deal must come with vigorous enforcement, strong monitoring, clear consequences for any violations and a broader strategy to confront Iran’s aggression across the region. We cannot forget that Tehran's fingerprints are on nearly every conflict across the Middle East, from Syria to Lebanon to Yemen. We must work closely with Israel and other partners to cut off the flow of money and arms from Iran to Hezbollah. If the Arab League can designate all of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, surely it is time for our friends in Europe and the rest of the international community to do so as well and to do that now.

One can also glean a bit of knowledge as to what kind of role Israel and the Middle East is playing in the 2016 election by taking a brief look at the relevant section of each party’s Platform, adopted at their recently concluded national conventions.

First from the Republican Platform:

  • Like the United States of America, the modern state of Israel is a country born from the aspira­tion for freedom and stands out among the nations as a beacon of democracy and humanity. Beyond our mutual strategic interests, Israel is likewise an exceptional country that shares our most essen­tial values. It is the only country in the Middle East where freedom of speech and freedom of religion are found. Therefore, support for Israel is an expres­sion of Americanism, and it is the responsibility of our government to advance policies that reflect Americans’ strong desire for a relationship with no daylight between America and Israel. We recognize Jerusalem as the eternal and indivisible capital of the Jewish state and call for the American embassy to be moved there in fulfillment of U.S. law.
  • We reaffirm America’s commitment to Israel’s security and will ensure that Israel main­tains a qualitative military edge over any and all adversaries. We support Israel’s right and obli­gation to defend itself against terror attacks upon its people and against alternative forms of warfare being waged upon it legally, economically, cultur­ally, and otherwise. We reject the false notion that Israel is an occupier and specifically recog­nize that the Boycott, Divest­ment, and Sanctions Movement (BDS) is anti-Semitic in nature and seeks to destroy Israel. Therefore, we call for effective legislation to thwart actions that are intended to limit commer­cial relations with Israel, or persons or entities doing business in Israel or in Israeli-controlled territories, in a discriminatory manner.
  • The United States seeks to assist in the estab­lishment of comprehensive and lasting peace in the Middle East, to be negotiated among those living in the region. We oppose any measures intended to impose an agreement or to dictate borders or other terms, and we call for the immediate termination of all U.S. funding of any entity that attempts to do so. Our party is proud to stand with Israel now and always.
  • It is the responsibility of our government to advance policies that reflect Americans’ strong desire for a relationship with no daylight between America and Israel.

Next, statements in the Democrat’s national platform:

  • Democrats will also address the detrimental role Iran plays in the region and will robustly enforce and, if necessary, strengthen non-nuclear sanctions. Iran is the leading state sponsor of terrorism. It violates the human rights of its population, denies the Holocaust, vows to eliminate Israel, and has its fingerprints on almost every conflict in the Middle East. Democrats will push back against Iran’s destabilizing activities including its support for terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, counter Iran’s ballistic missile program, bolster the capabilities of our Gulf partners, and ensure that Israel always has the ability to defend itself. Finally, Democrats recognize that the Iranian people seek a brighter future for their country and greater engagement with the international community. We will embrace opportunities for cultural, academic and other exchanges with the Iranian people.
  • In the Middle East, Democrats will push for more inclusive governance in Iraq and Syria that respects the equal rights of all citizens; provide support and security for Lebanon and Jordan, two countries that are hosting a disproportionate number of refugees; maintain our robust security cooperation with Gulf countries; and stand by the people of the region as they seek greater economic opportunity and freedom. A strong and secure Israel is vital to the United States because we share overarching strategic interests and the common values of democracy, equality, tolerance, and pluralism. That is why we will always support Israel’s right to defend itself, including by retaining its qualitative military edge, and oppose any effort to delegitimize Israel, including at the United Nations or through the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement.
  • We will continue to work toward a two-state solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict negotiated directly by the parties that guarantees Israel’s future as a secure and democratic Jewish state with recognized borders and provides the Palestinians with independence, sovereignty, and dignity. While Jerusalem is a matter for final status negotiations, it should remain the capital of Israel, an undivided city accessible to people of all faiths. Israelis deserve security, recognition, and a normal life free from terror and incitement. Palestinians should be free to govern themselves in their own viable state, in peace and dignity.

In reality, none of the above provide that much insight into how much the issues of Israel, ISIS, terrorism, the Middle East and shifting global alignments will play in the remaining 88 days of the presidential campaign. Candidates and their surrogates, TV spots, Twitter blasts and printed broadsides provide little more than what Plato long ago referred to as “shadows on the cave wall” - diaphanous images purporting to be reality. Those who live, breath, eat and sleep international issues and shifting alliances in the Middle East know that it’s an extraordinarily complex puzzle consisting of incongruous pieces, historic antipathies and mind-numbing economic, sectarian and religious issues.

So, which candidate is best for Israel?  A sampling of campaign speeches cannot provide the answer; generally speaking, they are little more oratorical dross disguised to sound like diamonds; trinkets costumed to look like treasures.  Likewise, party platforms provide little evidence; they are like classic movie-era screenplays where everything is peachy, children eat their vegetables, God's in his heaven and all's right with the world . . . just so long as you vote for us.

No, the place to look is in the column right next door to "Promises" - the one marked "Past Actions."

Where Donald Trump believes that it will be best for the next POTUS to be neutral in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, Hillary Clinton has, from the time she was First Lady of Arkansas, taken the best that Israel has to offer in terms of programs, ideas and dreams, and imported them to the United States.  She was an eye-witness to negotiations between Arafat and Rabin; she tirelessly fought for stringent sanctions against Iran - sanctions which eventually brought them to the negotiating table.  Donald Trump, meanwhile, perpetuated an age-old anti-Semitic myth when he superimposed a magen David, a Star of David, over a pile of dollars, a photo of Secretary Clinton and the words "Most Corrupt Candidate Ever!"  Secretary Clinton has earned the respect of leaders from Berlin to Baghdad; they know she understands their history, their worries and challenges, their animosities and dreams.  They also know she is a good listener.  Donald Trump, on the other hand, scares them to death; they have no idea how much or how little he knows about the Middle East, how engaged he may or may not be; whether or not he really, truly exists outside of the limelight.

Republicans are quick to remind the voters of the mess that resulted when President Obama drew a line in the sand regarding Syrian chemical weapons and then allowed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to cross it. Our allies relied on us, our adversaries (i.e. Russia) made their calculations — and Obama balked. The result has been a strengthening of Russia, a defeat of our allies in Syria, and, of course, the most horrifying humanitarian disaster of our current moment. 

This was a likely a mistake. 

Imagine, if you will, the impact of Trump’s wild, uninformed and contradictory statements on the Middle East. They would destabilize an already unstable region, destroy trust in the United States and further isolate Israel.

For example, Trump has said the United States should declare war on ISIS. Would that include ground troops in Syria and Iraq? “Very few,” he said in a recent “60 Minutes” appearance. “We’re going to get neighboring countries involved.” How? By threatening to end oil purchases from Saudi Arabia and other allies, which would create an immediate recession and alienate our allies in the region.

More broadly, Trump has wildly oscillated between extreme interventionism — putting troops on the ground in Syria, for example — and extreme isolationism, ending decades-long alliances in NATO and elsewhere. As Jeffrey Goldberg has said, “He has no understanding of the post-war international order that was created by the United States.” More uncertainty, instability and isolation — with Israel paying the price.

Supporters like that Trump “tells it like it is,” but the Middle East doesn’t need a bull in a china shop. It needs calm, careful leadership — whatever one’s ideological preferences may be. Will Trump insult the leaders of Turkey, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, destabilizing American interests in the Middle East? Will his bellicose rhetoric incite violence on the Arab street?

Who knows what Mr. Trump might say tomorrow?

Even if Donald Trump’s isolationism were to make America great again, it would do so at the expense of America’s allies overseas — especially Israel. Trump’s foreign policy would leave Israel stranded in an anthill that Trump himself has stirred up. Israel will be the primary victim of this instability, extremism, volatility and isolationism.

Israel will be the first target for reprisals — not just from a few Palestinian terrorists, but also from Arab armies and rockets. Egypt and Syria will soon resemble Hamas and Hezbollah: extremist, Islamist and violent. And for what? This isn’t a case of risking war because of some important objective or principle. This is risking war for no reason at all, other than the childish psychology of an American despot.

Will the Jewish community continue a now century-old tradition of giving overwhelming electoral support to the Democrat in the race? The answer is a resounding YES, for in a contest between Clinton and Trump, there is, when all is said and done, no contest at all.    

Copyright ©201 Kurt F. Stone