Author: Zaid Jilani
The past year has seen an effective merger between the Republican Party and Israel’s right-wing Likud Party. This is particularly explicit with regards to the presidential race, where contenders are courting pro-Israel billionaire Sheldon Adelson, who could instantly unleash tens of millions of dollars to bolster their candidacies.
As a part of this “Adelson primary,” as it has been dubbed by the media, these presidential candidates are taking trips to Israel, where they meet with far-right politicians and studiously avoid interacting with everyday Palestinians or the occupation. They then come back and tell fairy tales of a liberal democracy under existential threat.
Here’s who has gone and what they’ve come back to say.
Rick Santorum: Santorum has not yet announced, but is considered a likely contender. He visited Israel last year on a trip organized by the right-wing group “Patriot Voices.” While there, he called the right-wing outlet Newsmax to give an interview. Despite the tremendous political, economic and military support the United States provides Israel, Santorum said “the average Israeli knows whose side that John Kerry and Barack Obama are on, and it’s not to protect the security of Israel.” For Santorum, re-arming the Israelis as they were assaulting the Gaza Strip while vocally defending their actions simply wasn’t supportive enough.
Scott Walker: Walker visited Israel this month, and when he returned he wrote a post on Medium detailing his “reflections.” The Israel Walker says he saw is “one of the world’s most vibrant democracies,” and one of “America’s most important allies.” That’s an odd phrasing for a country that systematically disenfranchises 4.5 million Palestinians and gives millions of non-Jews citizenship without the same full legal rights as Jewish Israelis. Walker also seemed to endorse the Bush administration’s foreign policy, saying he would “take the fight to them before they take the fight to us,” which echoed similar remarks by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney in support of the unprovoked war against Iraq.
Ben Carson: The former neurosurgeon’s strange comments about Israel actually began before he actually got there. GQ’s Jason Zengerle accompanied Carson on his trip to the country, and witnessed a bizarre conversation he had with his Israeli guide. He admitted he did not know what the Knesset (the Israeli legislature) actually did, and had his guide explain it. After she finished, he responded, “It sounds complex. Why don’t they just adopt the system we have?” When he actually got to Israel, he was quick to draw conclusions. When informed about foreign fighters ending the Syrian civil war, he concluded, “It’s just like the troublemakers in Ferguson.”
When he returned to the United States, Carson was suddenly an expert on world affairs, trying to lump in Iran with ISIS. “We need to recognize that the Shia in Iran are every bit as dangerous, perhaps more dangerous,” he said, a sectarian warning that could easily be found in the text of an extremist Saudi cleric.
Carly Fiorina: The former HP executive visited Israel in 2010, in a trip widely seen as oriented around courting pro-Israel political forces. This spring, she claimed that tensions with Israel are “in no small measure due to President Obama,” simply ignoring Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s series of provocative words and actions. She also went further, pledging to repudiate an Iran deal on her first day in office—essentially rejecting Obama’s diplomatic efforts.
Israel is playing a greater role in the GOP presidential race than perhaps ever before. The Adelson primary is transforming the same political party that once harshly clashed with Israeli leadership over its failure to make peace into one that is indistinguishable from the Likud.
But something else is happening on the Democratic side. While candidates there are not openly calling for sanctions or cutting aid to Israel, they’re not leaping up to defend it, either. The topic is all but absent in the Democratic primary, despite the fact that the party is the traditional base of the pro-Israel lobby. Polling shows that the party’s rising base of young people and racial minorities is increasingly hostile to Israeli foreign policy, in ways that will surely at some point impact American policy.
Many in the United States have lamented the increasing polarization of the Israel issue, but it is that polarization that may finally give Americans a choice about policy, rather than bipartisan support for Israel, right or wrong.