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Why Republicans Have Gone Nuts for Israel

Jewish voters remain one of the most stalwart progressive groups in the US, but it's the Republican Party that has taken up Israel as its cause célèbre.

by Kevin Lincoln
Mar 30 2015, 9:51pm

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu just days before the deadline for an Iran nuclear deal. Photo via Flickr

My Jewish grandpa had an expression: "The worst Democrat is better than the best Republican." He said it partly joking, but also, partly not—like many Jewish immigrants who fled Hitler's Third Reich in the 1930s and ended up, as he did, in Long Island, voting the Democratic ticket was essential to his identity as an American.

Fast forward to 2015, when the New York Times prints a story headlined "For G.O.P., Support for Israel Becomes New Litmus Test," and Ted Cruz's biggest applause lines during his presidential campaign launch at an evangelical Christian university are about his passion for the Jewish state, and it's obvious that things have taken a bizarre turn. While Jewish Americans still vote for Democrats in massive, though decreasing, majorities—President Barack Obama took 78 percent and 69 percent of the Jewish vote in 2008 and 2012, respectively—it's now the Republican Party, not the Democrats, that has taken up the flag of Israel as its cause célèbre.

Most of this can be summed by the old cliché: "the enemy of your enemy is your friend." As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu desperately tries to prevent the US from negotiating a nuclear agreement with Iran, he has found allies among Republicans in Congress, who are similarly fervent in their opposition to any deal. House Speaker John Boehner even took the remarkable step of going around Obama to invite Netanyahu to address Congress earlier this month, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been in Israel in recent days, as the Iran negotiations reach their scheduled deadline.

It represents a culmination of tensions between Netanyahu and Obama that have been broiling in recent years. Netanyahu, aka Bibi, who was re-elected to a fourth term two weeks ago, claims that what he calls the "Iran-Lausanne-Yemen" axis—Lausanne being the location of the Iranian nuclear talks in Switzerland—wants nothing other than the erasure of Israel from the map. And last week, White House officials accused Israel of spying on the Iran talks, making a very public statement about just how bad the two countries' "special relationship" has become.

The benefit that supporting Israel holds for Republicans is twofold: First, it offers a beachhead in the war against the Democrats, namely the sitting president and whoever takes up his mantle in 2016—presumably Hillary Clinton; second, Israel is the GOP's most obvious ally as they gear up to confront both ISIS and Iran, two enemies that prospective 2016 Republican candidates have referred to as everything from "the greatest threat the world will know in my lifetime" ( Senator Lindsey Graham) to "the face of evil" (Cruz).

Both Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Senator Marco Rubio of Florida have promised they would revoke any Iran deal Obama passed if they became president. Even former Florida Governor Jeb Bush scrambled to reaffirm his support for Israel and absolutist opposition to Iran this month, after his campaign advisor, former Secretary of State James Baker, criticized Bibi and reaffirmed his hope for a two-state solution.

But Baker, who held those same views as a member of George H.W. Bush's cabinet, now looks like a relic in today's GOP. American evangelicals are now the country's biggest fans of Israel, perhaps even more so than American Jews. That's why you have a Cuban-American Southern Baptist senator from Texas getting an evangelical audience hyped when he declares he stands with Bibi, while polls find that Jewish voters, one of the country's most reliably progressive demographics, are increasingly critical of Israel. (Meanwhile, Israelis favor the right side of the aisle; in 2012, Romney outpolled Obama in Israel by a considerable margin, according to a poll by Tel Aviv University.)

Oddly enough, the sprint to embrace Israel unconditionally has been so pervasive in the GOP that it's difficult to find differences between the party's 2016 presidential candidates. Cruz has taken a lead on the issue—his support for Bibi is so fanatical, he was booed off the stage while speaking to an organization devoted to the defense of Christians in the Middle East. (Cruz also reportedly has a photograph of himself and his wife with Bibi hanging in his office.) In his day-job as a member of Congress, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul has introduced bills to cut aid to Palestine. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who I guess still thinks he can be president, recently gave the obligatory "Obama hasn't stood by Israel" line; and Rubio basically said that Democrats who boycotted Bibi's speech to Congress were letting the terrorists win. I imagine you don't need me to tell you where Mike Huckabee stands—he makes regular trips to the Holy Land—and Rick Santorum and Bobby Jindal recently went on a tour of Israel with the Family Research Council.

One of the most interesting wrinkles, then, in the 2016 Presidential race—aside from which Republican Jewish billionaire Sheldon Adelson ultimately decides to back—is where Hillary Clinton will fall on the Israel-loving spectrum. In contrast to Obama's hardline approach to handling Netanyahu, Clinton reportedly told Jewish leaders Sunday that she wanted to repair the American relationship with Israel, a possible change from the stance she took in December, when she defended the president's talks with Iran. If Clinton continues to shift right on the issue, the American left—and, increasingly, American Jews—might find themselves with no real representative opinion in 2016 when it comes to Israel and Palestine.

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