How do the two leading candidates for president of the United States
differ in their approach to Israel and related topics? Parallel
interviews with journalist Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic, who spoke in early May with Democrat Barack Obama and in late May with Republican John McCain, offer some important insights.
Asked roughly the same set of questions, they went off
in opposite directions. Obama used the interview to convince readers of
his pro-Israel and pro-Jewish bona fides. He thrice reiterated his
support for Israel: "the idea of a secure Jewish state is a
fundamentally just idea, and a necessary idea"; "the need to preserve a
Jewish state that is secure is … a just idea and one that should be
supported here in the United States and around the world"; and "You
will not see, under my presidency, any slackening in commitment to
John McCain and Barack Obama, in close discussion.
Obama then detailed his support within four specifically Jewish contexts.
- Personal development: "when
I think about the Zionist idea, I think about how my feelings about
Israel were shaped as a young man — as a child, in fact. I had a camp
counselor when I was in sixth grade who was Jewish-American but who had
spent time in Israel."
- Political career:
"When I started organizing, the two fellow organizers in Chicago were
Jews, and I was attacked for associating with them. So I've been in the
foxhole with my Jewish friends."
"I always joke that my intellectual formation was through Jewish
scholars and writers, even though I didn't know it at the time. Whether
it was theologians or Philip Roth who helped shape my sensibility, or
some of the more popular writers like Leon Uris."
"My staff teases me sometimes about anguishing over moral questions. I
think I learned that partly from Jewish thought, that your actions have
consequences and that they matter and that we have moral imperatives."
In contrast, McCain felt no need to establish his Zionism nor his
pro-Jewish credentials. Taking them as a given, he used his interview
to raise practical policy issues, particularly the threat from Iran.
For example, asked about the justness of Zionism, he replied that "it's
remarkable that Zionism has been in the middle of wars and great trials
and it has held fast to the ideals of democracy and social justice and
human rights," then went on: "I think that the State of Israel remains
under significant threat from terrorist organizations as well as the
continued advocacy of the Iranians to wipe Israel off the map." Again
referring to Iran, McCain committed himself "to never allowing another
Holocaust." He referred to the threatened destruction of Israel as
having "profound national security consequences" for the United States
and he stressed that Tehran sponsors terrorist organizations intent "on
the destruction of the United States of America."
A second difference concerns the importance of the Arab-Israeli
conflict. Obama presented it as an "open wound" and an "open sore" that
infects "all of our foreign policy." In particular, he said, its lack
of resolution "provides an excuse for anti-American militant jihadists
to engage in inexcusable actions." Asked about Obama's statement,
McCain slammed the idea that radical Islam results mainly from the
Arab-Israeli confrontation: "I don't think the conflict is a sore. I
think it's a national security challenge." Were the Israeli-Palestinian
issue resolved tomorrow, he pointedly continued, "we would still face
the enormous threat of radical Islamic extremism."
Finally, the two disagree on the import of Israelis continuing to
live on the West Bank. Obama places great emphasis on the topic,
commenting that if their numbers continue to grow, "we're going to be
stuck in the same status quo that we've been stuck in for decades now."
McCain acknowledged this as a major issue but quickly changed the topic
to the Hamas campaign of shelling Sderot, the besieged Israeli town
that he personally visited in March, and whose predicament he explicitly compares to the mainland United States coming under attack from one of its borders.
Goldberg's twin interviews underscore two facts. First, major-party
candidates for the U.S. presidency must still pay homage to warm
American ties to Israel, no matter how, as in Obama's case,
dramatically this may contradict their previously-held views. Second, whereas McCain is secure on the topic, Obama worries about winning the pro-Israel vote.