There won’t be a real difference between another Obama term and a possible Romney presidency. But Gingrich – with his ties to the Israeli right, destructive track record from the 1990s and very personal connection to Netanyahu – could turn out to be a real nightmare
Watching the American primaries makes for a mix of fun and moments of deep anxiety. Most of the time it’s like a good sports match, but every now and then you are reminded that the identity of the winner might have a real and clear impact on your life. After all, Israel has stopped being a foreign affairs issue in Washington a long time ago. Our very local politics are part of the strange and unpredictable American culture war; and – to quote Dimi Reider – our policies are often shaped by the myths, values and fears of people living far-far away.
After signaling Israel as a topic through which they can score easy points against the administration, the Republicans are engaged in an all-out competition over who is more Zionist. Some of the ideas they are promoting would put them in the hard right in Israel, somewhere between the radical settlers and the heirs of Kahane. Often, they simply betray a very misinformed and shallow view of the political reality. For example, even a right-wing Israeli government would hesitate before following Rick Santorum’s advice to annex the West Bank, since it would constitute a formal adoption of apartheid.
The two remaining viable candidates, Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney, are more knowledgeable and less prone to statements whose meaning they don’t fully understand.
Romney is a careful man. Seeing himself as the “inevitable” candidate, he is careful not to box himself in positions that could make his life as president harder. The former governor hasn’t committed to moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem; he has refrained making degrading remarks like the one Gingrich made about the Palestinians, or from advocating ethnic cleansing like Mike Huckabee.
I would even go so far as to say that I don’t see a great difference between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Except for a brief moment in the first year of his presidency, Obama has continued with the approach of previous administrations, providing a diplomatic umbrella for the Israeli occupation while trying – with varying degrees of success – to somewhat slow settlement construction.
President Romney is likely to continue this path, while advocating the renewal of the “peace process” on Israel’s terms. One could even argue that a “moderate” Republican president would actually help progressives by forcing the Democrats to attack the administration’s Middle East policy from the left – something they are reluctant to do now. But even if you don’t buy this, given the last three years, there is little reason to believe that Romney would be that different from Obama or George W. Bush on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
Newt Gingrich as the American Ariel Sharon
Newt Gingrich is a different story. Gingrich – a personal friend of Benjamin Netanyahu and a protégé of right-wing gambling billionaire Sheldon Adelson – is a real supporter of the settlements and the occupation; his views of the Palestinians are as distorted as they come; and he has shown his inclination to be more “pro-Israel” than Israelis themselves, when he helped Netanyahu in the 1990s in his efforts against the Rabin government and the peace process.
America’s current policies are bad enough, but Gingrich is smart enough, well-connected to the Israeli right and ruthless enough to cause way more damage than any other president we have seen. Other candidates – especially those on the evangelical right – seem to be just saying anything that sounds conservative on the Israeli issue. If elected, their inflammatory statements will have to meet the test of political reality. Newt, on the other hand, seems to mean what he is saying. His madness is all too real. By following one of his “out-of-the-box” ideas, he will set the region on fire.
The common wisdom is that Gingrich is unelectable. I find this to be only half true. Of the two leading Republican candidates, I think Gingrich is the more dangerous one. He is the one who could lose big time, but also pull a stunning upset against a sitting president. Romney, on the other hand, seems like the guy who would finish an honorable second.
I shared this thought with some American friends and they all dismissed it, saying that the Democrats would thank their lucky stars if Gingrich were to beat Romney. Perhaps. But to me, Gingrich seems like the American Ariel Sharon – an unelectable, unpopular politician, who came back from the political desert to lead his party due to unique circumstances, and during the time of national crisis was able to change the national conversation and win elections in a landslide.
Ariel Sharon was a corrupt outsider with a strange personal history and a reputation for dark backroom deals – but ironically, at a certain point all this played in his favor: Nothing his political rivals threw at him helped, because the public had already heard all the allegations – and more – against him. Israeli voters, made anxious by the second Intifada, were ready to give Sharon a shot. Wouldn’t the American public do the same during the worst economic crisis in almost a century?
The prospect of Newt Gingrich in the White House and Benjamin Netanyahu (or Lieberman?) in the Prime Minister’s Office, unlikely as it may seem now, is something that could keep me up at night.