Several of the likely Republican candidates for the 2012 presidential election criticized President Obama for not being supportive enough of Israel in his big Middle East speech Thursday. Obama's wide-ranging address was largely about the Arab Spring and providing aid to Egypt and Tunisia, but the line that the candidates are objecting to is his call for a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine based on the 1967 borders. Mitt Romney said Obama "has thrown Israel under the bus," Michele Bachmann said he "betrayed our friend and ally." Tim Pawlenty said the line was "a mistaken and very dangerous demand."
Rick Santorum said the whole speech demonstrated the "sad state of American diplomacy," and Ron Paul, the most isolationist of the 2012 lineup, said it is not America's place "to dictate how Israel runs her affairs."
The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg says Obama's position isn't that striking, actually. Though other parts of the speech offered for something new--an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, a denunciation of Palestinians seeking statehood status from the United Nations--saying the 1967 borders should be used in creating a Palestinian state is old news, he writes.
I'm feeling a certain Groundhog Day effect here. This has been the basic idea for at least 12 years. This is what Bill Clinton, Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat were talking about at Camp David, and later, at Taba. This is what George W. Bush was talking about with Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert.
And, Goldberg follows up, if this is throwing Israel "under a bus"--at a time when American and Israeli military cooperation "has never been better"--then there are "a lot of countries out there that would like to be thrown under similar buses."
Commentary's Jonathan Tobin disagrees with Goldberg on whether Obama's position is a foreign policy departure, saying, "Obama tilted the diplomatic field significantly in the direction of the Palestinians." But he helps explain the lightning-quick attacks on Obama's speech from GOP contenders. Toobin argues that Republicans have failed to use Israel as a wedge issue to carve off some of the heavily Democratic Jewish vote. But Israel works as a wedge issue for a different demographic--evangelicals.
While many observers will dismiss the GOP contenders' stands on the 1967 borders as mere pandering, the fact is the votes that are up for grabs as a result of this controversy are probably not those of disillusioned Jewish Democrats. Many evangelical and other conservative Christians are devoted friends of Israel and consider this, alongside social issues such as abortion, a litmus test for candidates in a way that most Jews do not. And it is the members of this group, who vote in large numbers in Republican primaries and caucuses that will more readily influence the outcome of those contest than any Jewish support.
So rather than focus on whether the GOP has a chance to win over the Jews, it might be wiser to ponder which of the candidates is best placed to demonstrate to Christians their unswerving support for Israel.
Mike Huckabee, who recently took himself out of the running for the 2012 nomination despite his good standing in the polls and popularity with evangelicals, also immediately attacked Obama, saying the president had "betrayed Israel and made a grievous mistake" in promoting a policy that's an "outrage to peace, sovereignty of Israel, and a stable Middle East."