Romney or Obama: Why the Israeli left should care

The Left in Israel should not remain apathetic to the U.S. elections in November and expect American policy on Israel to remain basically unchanged. Romney is much less likely to restrain Israel, more specifically a right-wing government. 

By Dov Waxman

The general sentiment among many of my left-wing Israeli friends about Romney’s visit to Israel is a mix of cynicism and apathy – cynicism because they see the visit as a transparent attempt to pander to American Jewish voters and donors, and apathy because they feel that whoever wins the U.S. presidential election in November, American policy to Israel will remain basically unchanged. While they’re right to be cynical, they are wrong to be apathetic. A Romney administration will be different for Israel than Obama’s administration has been.  From a liberal or left-wing Israeli or Jewish perspective, it will almost certainly be worse.

Let’s face it, Obama has been a disappointment to those of us who hoped that he would be the President to finally broker Israeli-Palestinian peace after so many others had failed. After all, he seemed to possess a much more nuanced understanding of the conflict than his immediate predecessor George W. Bush, he expressed an obvious empathy for both sides, and he clearly recognized that resolving the conflict was an American national interest, not just an Israeli and Palestinian one.  His popularity, especially among American Jews, also augured well.  In short, not only did Obama “get it,” he could also “do it,” meaning that he was in a strong enough position to persuade and cajole both sides, Israel in particular, to make the necessary concessions for a peace agreement.

Needless to say, things have not turned out the way we hoped.  Today, the Israelis and Palestinians are barely even talking to each other, and the prospects for peace seem more distant than ever. The viability of the two-state solution itself is now seriously in doubt, as the population of Israeli settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem continues to inexorably rise (there are now around 350,000 settlers in the West Bank and 300,000 in East Jerusalem). The Obama Administration’s policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has undoubtedly been a dismal failure (although there are many reasons for this, not least Israeli and Palestinian recalcitrance).

But while Israeli leftists, not to mention Palestinians, have every reason to be disappointed with the lack of progress that has been made over the past four years and to be disillusioned with Obama personally, they should not let these feelings prevent them from acknowledging that Obama is still much better, or at least a lot less bad, than Romney when it comes to U.S. policy on Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The crucial difference between Obama and Romney when it comes to Israel can be summed up in one word: restraint. While neither man may be willing to apply real pressure on Israel (although Obama initially tried to and may try again in a second term), Romney is much less likely to restrain Israel, more specifically a right-wing Israeli government.

It is, of course, impossible to really know how much the Obama administration has restrained Netanyahu and his government. Would Israel have built more settlements and allowed more outposts? Would it have fired more missiles into Gaza in response to Palestinian rocket attacks? Would it have already bombed Iran by now? We can only speculate about these possibilities. What is clear, however, is that the Netanyahu government knew that it had to deal with a U.S. Administration that opposed Israeli settlement construction and supported the Palestinian right to self-determination in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem. To be sure, Prime Minister Netanyahu had a Republican-controlled Congress on his side, but he still could not risk the wrath of the White House.  He therefore enjoyed less freedom of action.

Will Netanyahu, Lieberman and company feel the same way if Mitt Romney is sitting in the Oval Office? If Romney wins in November, it will be in no small part due to the largesse of casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, a longtime supporter of Netanyahu and a man who finds AIPAC too moderate.  Many other extremely wealthy right-wing American Jews are also backing Romney.  In addition to donations from right-wing Jews, the votes of staunchly pro-Israel evangelical Christians will also be necessary for Romney to win in November. With this kind of support behind him, it is highly unlikely that as president, Romney will risk any kind of confrontation or dispute with Israel.  It would simply be political suicide for him.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that if Romney becomes the next U.S. president, Israel will attack Iran or annex parts of the West Bank, but it does mean that Israel will face less constraint than it does at present. While this is certainly good news for those on the right who want Israel to be completely free to do as it pleases — regardless of Palestinian rights, human rights, or pretty much anything else — it’s bad news for those of us who have yet to give up hope for an end to the occupation, for peace, and for a viable Palestinian state to exist alongside Israel. A Romney Administration could be the last nail in the coffin of the two-state solution.

Dov Waxman is an associate professor of political science at Baruch College and at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY).  He is the co-author of Israel’s Palestinians: The Conflict Within (Cambridge University Press, 2011) and the author of The Pursuit of Peace and the Crisis of Israeli Identity: Defending / Defining the Nation (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).  He is currently a visiting scholar at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

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