We all know that the politicians vying for the GOP presidential nomination have gone to extreme, even bizarre, lengths to prove themselves the most pro-Israel candidate (whatever that means), in the process telling Israel and American Jews what is the best medicine for the ailments afflicting Israel. This includes everything from Israeli policy toward settlements in the West Bank, to how to deal with Iran, to how bad Obama and the Democrats are for Israel: see here, here, and here for specifics.
The candidates’ statements, from which they almost never back down but often double down on, are worrisome. They distort the realities and complexities on the ground in Israel; they force Israel (and everything connected to it, such as Iran) to become a wedge issue in American politics, closing off space for careful and nuanced public policy dialogues; they open the door to inane and diversionary debates about the role of the “Israel lobby” in American politics; and they raise serious questions about American policy toward the Middle East should any of them become president or able to influence the president’s foreign policies.
But let’s be careful to put things in perspective. No American president, regardless of which party he comes from, his particular ideology and preferences, or his support in Congress and among the public, has ever been able to shape events on the ground, in the Arab-Israeli and Israeli-Palestinian arenas.
First, the conflict itself is a multi-party and -factor dynamic, quite simply beyond the control of any one actor.
Second, Republican presidents deemed most supportive of Israel have made decisions at odds with both mainstream American Jewish and Israeli preferences: Ronald Reagan sold advanced military equipment to Saudi Arabia, which AIPAC fought hard against; while George W. Bush pushed Israel to agree to elections in the Palestinian areas in 2006, against Israel’s dire warnings that Hamas would benefit most from them.
Third, it’s not always a good thing for presidents to become so closely involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, whatever the form of their involvement. Bill Clinton’s very personal participation at Camp David (2000) failed to produce any agreement, though it does deserve at least some credit for bringing the parties together for a more detailed discussion of their positions than had been done in a long time. But that failure, despite the weight of the presidential office and the prestige of the president himself, helped push Bush away from active involvement in the peace process, which in turn was blamed by many analysts and Arab states for contributing to continued violence and stagnation. In short, there is no magical equation by which presidents can or should determine their level of connection to the conflict.
Finally, it bears repeating that rhetoric and promises made during election campaigns are just as easily forgotten in the midst of the harsh realities of governing. Despite its seeming popularity, the promise to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem has never been a priority for any president, Democrat or Republican. The Jerusalem Embassy Act, passed in 1995, requires the move, but allows for the president to waive enactment of the law every six months beginning in October 1998, on the grounds that it would damage US interests in the region. Every president has done so, like clockwork.
It’s obvious by now that we cannot convince the politicians to tone down their rhetoric. But as observers, analysts, and commentators, let’s at least recognize that we cannot assume outcomes directly from that rhetoric.