If there's anything that can produce more anxiety than watching the Republicans pick a presidential candidate, it's watching the process from Israel.
Yes, I know that the Republican candidates—well, except for Ron Paul—all love Israel. Newt Gingrich is still in the race because of the cash his super PAC got from casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, whose other political investments include financing an Israeli newspaper that exists to promote Benjamin Netanyahu. Rick Santorum has just been endorsed by the high council of theocons, who are sure they understand Israel's importance better than the Jews do. Mitt Romney's foreign-policy platform restates—in more polite but equally counterfactual terms—his accusation of last year that "President Obama has thrown Israel under the bus."
This is exactly what makes me nervous. These candidates would love Israel to death. What's scary is not just that any Republican from the class of '12 is likely to replace Barack Obama's uneven support for Israeli-Palestinian peace with the George W. Bush-style malignant neglect. It's not just that the Middle East as a whole is downstream from America: Our region gets swamped by the mistakes made in Washington. What's really scary is that the way that Republicans—including Ron Paul—talk and act about Israel shows that their grasp of world affairs ranges between incompetent and delusional.
Let's start with Santorum's statement—video-recorded at an Iowa campaign event—that "all the people who live in the West Bank are Israelis. They're not Palestinians. There is no Palestinian." It's worth watching how Santorum reaches this remarkable conclusion. The West Bank, he says, is part of Israel, just as New Mexico is part of the United States. "It was ground that was gained during war," he says. Challenged that it might make a difference that the "annexation" was recent, the candidate insists, "No, it doesn't matter. … It is legitimately Israeli country." And since the land is Israel's, he infers, everyone living on it is an Israeli. Presto, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict evaporates.
As a Washington Post fact-checker has noted, Santorum staked out a position more extreme than the official Israeli stance. After conquering the West Bank in 1967, Israel did annex East Jerusalem (a move that no other country has recognized). But the Israeli Foreign Ministry describes the rest of the West Bank as "disputed" territory, not as part of Israel. The explicit reason that even hawkish Israeli politicians haven't followed through on their desire to annex the West Bank is that they don't want to offer citizenship to its Palestinian residents.
But Santorum isn't just ignorant of the positions of his supposed ally. He doesn't know that it does matter when a country gained ground in war. Post-World War II international law, anchored in the U.N. Charter, bans expansion through conquest. Resolution 242, the Security Council's November 1967 decision on the Arab-Israeli conflict, refers explicitly to "the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war." The man who would conduct America's foreign policy hasn't heard about this.
Worse, he doesn't know the difference between nationality and citizenship. He has missed the whole concept of ethnic nationalism—of people who share a language and a culture, regard themselves as a national community and want self-determination. For Santorum, someone who has Israeli citizenship can't be a Palestinian. By the same logic, there are no Kurds, and no Kurdish question in Turkey, Iraq, or Syria. The Basques have vanished. The conflict between Greek and Turkish Cypriots is beyond comprehension in Santorum's world. Doesn't it make you nervous that there are people who would like him to lead the most powerful country in our world?
Newt Gingrich, the supposed historical thinker of the Republican field, believes that the Palestinians are an "invented" people. He volunteered this insight when an interviewer asked him if he is a Zionist. Palestine was never a state, he noted; Palestinians "are in fact Arabs … and they had a chance to go many places" rather than oppose Zionism. Gingrich, unlike Santorum, can conceive of a national community not defined by citizenship in a present-day state—but only if it is defined by a state that existed in the past. The Kurds are still out of luck.
Moreover, a person can "really" only belong to one such community. Keep it simple, says Mr. Gingrich: Either you're Arab or Palestinian; claiming to be both is a con. At a stroke, the complex, nested identities of the Middle East vanish, making life so much easier for the would-be GOP statesman. In the same interview, Gingrich erases all distinctions between Hamas and the Fatah-run Palestinian Authority. Both "represent an enormous desire to destroy Israel." Now isn't that simpler than trying to understand Palestinian politics? Professor Gingrich also alludes to a simple, ethnically clean solution to the conflict: Palestinians could "go many places" in the Arab world. Gingrich describes himself as being "pretty close to Bibi Netanyahu" politically. This may be libelous in how far to the right it places the Israeli prime minister.
Then there's Mitt Romney, working to play the part of the responsible adult in the Republican playroom. The act was undercut by Romney's announcement in October of his foreign-policy team. Besides the long lineup of veterans of George W. Bush's administration—the folks who brought you the war in Iraq, among other gifts—there's also a name that appears both as "special adviser" to Romney and co-chair of his Middle East working group: Walid Phares.
In the best case, this shows that Romney didn't try hard to vet his advisers. The Lebanese-born Phares has made a reputation since arriving in the United States as an anti-terror expert. But as Mother Jones journalist Adam Serwer revealed in a damning exposé, Phares had an earlier career as a top ideologue of the Lebanese Forces, the Christian militia whose part in Lebanon's civil war included carrying out the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre. Phares's message to the militia's fighters, as described by a younger colleague, was that "they were the vanguard of a war between the West and Islam." As late as 1997, from his new home in America, he was still writing in a right-wing Israeli journal in favor of renewing the alliance between Israel and Lebanese Christians against the "Arabo-Islamic threat"—a replay of the siren's call that drew Israel into its disastrous invasion of Lebanon in 1982.
Let's say that Romney knew nothing of Phares's past. In American policy discussion, Phares has been one of the salesmen of a conflict of civilizations, of the West against monochromatic Islam. This is close to the ultimate oversimplification of global policy and of Middle East policy in particular. Phares is still named on Romney's website in the list of advisers—the likely source of appointees if the candidate becomes president. (Obama's pre-election Mideast adviser, Daniel Shapiro, is now ambassador to Israel, after a stint on the National Security Council.)
Oh, and then there's Ron Paul, the man who would eliminate U.S. aid to Israel along with all other foreign aid. Paul's isolationism is of one piece with his Ayn Randian economics: He's a man who'd refuse to pay to put out the fire in a neighbor's house, even if his home and the neighbor's were built of wood and high winds were blowing. The other guy should have bought fire extinguishers, Paul would say. He offers the ultimate hyper-simplicity: The rest of the world doesn't even exist.
As I said, watching from Israel as Republican voters choose between these candidates can make a person nervous. But then, it should make you nervous no matter where you are. One of these men will stand a reasonable chance of becoming the most powerful person in a complicated world that he does not care to understand.