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Why U.S. Candidates Should Stop Talking About Israel

Both Shmuel Rosner and Jeffrey Goldberg have written recently of the need for American national candidates to stop gibbering on about Israel. "The goal of Zionism is normalcy, Jewish normalcy," Goldberg noted last week on his Atlantic blog. "This, of course, is an oxymoron, but we can still hope. The cause is not helped when presidential candidates, well-meaning though they might be, constantly invoke the existential dangers to Israel when arguing for a) getting out of Iraq; b) staying in Iraq; c) talking to Iran; or d) bombing Iran." For his part, Rosner pointed out in a long-form essay for Slate that in the Palin-Biden debate, Israel was mentioned a total of 17 times, outstripping by far references to more pressing foreign policy concerns for the U.S. (China, Russia, Europe). It’s not in either country’s interest to overemphasize a relationship that, however "sacrosanct" (to borrow Barack Obama’s word for it), is by no means exclusive.

Jewcy invited Goldberg and Rosner to discuss their mutual fantasy of minimal Israel chatter in an ongoing email dialogue. Below is Rosner’s opening salvo; Goldberg’s reply will be posted later today.

Dear Jeffrey, I’ll start by repeating the core argument I was making in Slate. It was not about the importance of the U.S.-Israel alliance, or the reasons such alliance is desirable (for both countries). My complaint was about the frequency with which presidential candidates mention Israel. I think this hurts Israel because it presents is as a country that is more trouble than an asset to America. I also think that it distorts the voters’ perception of American foreign policy. Israel is important, and is located in an important region. But mentioning Israel more than Chine, Russia, the European Union and its leaders (Germany, France, Britain) gives the wrong impression about the real interests and the real motives for numerous US policy decisions. The question for this email exchange, though, is how do we make it interesting for readers. If we both agree that Israel’s name should come up in the election with less frequency, the only way for us to have a debate is if we have some disagreements regarding the reasons for which we want it off the radar screen. My argument is fairly straight forward: it hurts Israel. It’s not about "normalcy" (as you briefly argue in the blog item you wrote about this topic) — it’s about interests. I don’t think the candidates really serve Israel’s interest when they talk about it. And since both of they claim — and I believe it to be right — to be staunch supporters of Israel, their actions contradict their intentions. As we both know, this is probably happening mainly because of politics. The candidates think that they need to keep saying how much they love Israel in order for people –mostly Jewish — to feel comfortable with them and to support them. I find it to be both ignorant and insulting: most American Jews care for Israel but are not one-issue voters. They might not vote for a candidate that is openly hostile to Israel, but will hardly make the nuances of Israel-related policies the definite reason for which to vote or not vote for specific candidates. If there’s a litmus test, both McCain and Obama have passed it a very long time ago. This does not mean that their different approaches to Middle East policies have no significance as far as Israel is concerned. It does mean that they can stop using Israel by way of explaining why staying/leaving Iraq is the right way to go, or why talking/bombing Iran will be the appropriate policy for the U.S. to pursue. As I wrote in my Slate piece, I think Israelis should also grow up and stop drooling whenever a debate is moving in Israel’s direction. The constant need for the husband to say how much he loves the bride does not mean the bride is lovable but rather that she lacks self-confidence. In the case of Israel, self-confidence in not just a quality that’s more appealing, it is also a matter of national security. If Israelis need this constant approval, it means that they aren’t sure about the US’ support. If they aren’t sure, their enemies might be convinced that it’s really something they can further erode by pursuing more aggressive policies. But let me ask you this Jeffrey: Is it Israel that makes Jewish voters uncomfortable about Barack Obama? you’ve written a lot about Obama and the Jews (as I did too), and you seem to think that something else is at play here – dare we say racism? and if that’s the case, can Obama overcome such weariness by talking more about Israel? And what about McCain: can he really convince Jewish voters to vote for him by convincing them that Obama’s policies will endanger Israel – or is he really going to scare Americans voters who might think that he is going to war with Iran because of Israel? A lot to talk about, and so little time.

Best, Shmuel

Jeffrey Goldberg’s reply can be read here.

Shmuel Rosner’s blog is here.

RELATED: Rosner’s original piece, "Enough About Israel, Already," for Slate, and Goldberg’s post at the Atlantic.

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