Open Zion

11.05.12

Tomorrow You Can Vote Early in the Israeli Election

A day before the Day, it's too late to for an Israeli to persuade any American Jew how to vote. Instead, I'll risk three premature postmortems: First, Jewish voters won't abandon Barack Obama in significant numbers. Second, the Orthodox vote for Mitt Romney will depend on ignoring the threat posed by the Republican "values" agenda to religious freedom. Third, Romney and Bibi Netanyahu have unintentionally succeeded in giving Americans the chance to vote on Israeli policy.

Tomorrow some Jews who voted for Obama last time will vote against him. Proportionally, the drop in support won't be much different from the overall change in the popular vote, and will be smaller than the change in the white vote nationally.

I confess: I feel safe making this forecast because it's hard to disprove. No one knows exactly how many Jews voted for Obama in 2008. The exit poll figure is 78 percent; a more recent analysis asserted 74 percent. Both are polling results, not vote counts. So nobody can precisely measure a small change.

And the oft-heralded large Jewish shift rightward won't happen this time either. The GOP has become the party of people who long for a more homogenous land—white, Christian, straight, where nary an immigrant is seen. It's a stance designed to alienate Jews, whose fundamental political interest is affirmation of diversity.

Yes, a fraction of Jews do vote Republican, including some Orthodox Jews who prefer the GOP stance in the culture wars. But Republican cultural conservatism isn't non-denominational. The telling example is abortion: The party's platform calls for an absolute ban, and Romney's website states that life starts at conception. If Romney-appointed judges overturn Roe v. Wade and allow Republicans to legislate their platform, it would be illegal to perform an abortion even when the mother's life is in danger—when halakhah, or Jewish religious law, not only allows but requires ending the pregnancy. This threat is hardly news: in a 1988 case, Agudath Israel of America filed a brief against a Missouri legislative finding that life begins at conception. Missouri, said the brief, had turned a religious dogma into law, violating the mother's right to life and the Constitution's establishment clause. The GOP still wants to legislate one religious belief and run roughshod over others.

There are also Jews for whom Israel is the top issue, who think "pro-Israel" means supporting settlement and war with Iran, and who will accept Romney's promise that there will be no daylight between him and Netanyahu. Believing this requires ignoring the daylight between Romney and Romney. Does he think Israeli-Palestinian peace is unachievable, as he said in May, or that Obama should have reached such an agreement, as he said in the final debate? Does he intend to keep Iran from having "nuclear materials" or only to prevent it from having "nuclear weapons"? In a single sentence during the debate, he appeared to endorse both possible tripwires for an American offensive.

Alas, such arguments will be as irrelevant tomorrow as Obama's actual support for Israel. The Jewish right's certainty that Obama is anti-Israel predates his inauguration. It's built on fear and prejudice, recycled online, oblivious to facts. It has been reinforced by Netanyahu's interference in the American campaign, including his virtual endorsement of Romney during the candidate's visit to Israel and his attacks on the current administration's Iran policy.

If reelected, Obama will not take revenge on Netanyahu, but the right's echo chamber will  fill with "evidence" that he's doing so. If Romney wins and lets Netanyahu write America's Mideast policy, the backlash will do long-term damage to the alliance with Israel. If Romney occasionally clashes with the Israeli government publicly, as every president in the last 60 years has done, be ready for cries of perfidy from Netanyahu and his American supporters. Grandiose expectations of big-power support and subsequent cries of betrayal are basic to Bibi's political vocabulary.

The Bibi-Mitt partnership during the campaign will have two effects that neither intended. For one, the American results will influence the Israeli campaign that has just begun. A Romney victory will purportedly prove that Netanyahu's American strategy was wise. If Obama wins, Netanyahu's challengers will justifiably assert that he has disqualified himself to manage Israel's most important alliance.

So Romney and Netanyahu have also given American voters a choice in which kind of Israeli policy America should support. Vote Republican and you cast a fraction of a vote for Netanyahu, intransigence toward the Palestinians, and an early attack on Iran. Vote Democratic, and you vote for turning Netanyahu out of office, for new Israeli-Palestinian talks, for caution toward Iran. Netanyahu has virtually insisted on a more open American debate on Israel. As long as his candidate loses tomorrow, I'll be willing to thank him.