Israel as a Republican State of Mind

AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner

Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee gestures as he speaks during a press conference in Jerusalem, Wednesday, August 19, 2015. 

Mike Huckabee met reporters Wednesday at the Waldorf-Astoria on a campaign stop. This particular Waldorf-Astoria was in downtown West Jerusalem. Huckabee wanted to talk about Iran. The folks with microphones and cameras mostly wanted him to talk about his previous campaign event. That was a fundraiser at the Israeli settlement of Shilo in the West Bank—or as Huckabee insistently called the area, "Judea and Samaria," which he said was part of Israel.

The journalists' interrogation grew fiercer, and the ex-governor of Arkansas said time was up. As he made his escape, a foreign correspondent sitting strategically near the door asked: "Do you also think Gaza is part of Israel?" and another said, "Would you be the first president to abandon the two-state solution?"

"I'm not sure," Huckabee replied to one question or the other. It was the most reality-linked response of a hallucinatory session. He was, in fact, clueless.

Jerusalem and Shilo, let us note, are certainly not part of the United States. But why should that bother a Republican presidential candidate? The GOP and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have, together, steadily blurred the border between Israel and America as separate polities. Netanyahu's speech to Congress in March—at once an eve-of-elections campaign rally for him and an assist to the GOP offensive against President Barack Obama—was a symptom, not an exception.

In 2012, Mitt Romney held a fundraiser in Jerusalem. Huckabee just outdid him with Shilo. Netanyahu has been called the Republican senator from Israel. Huckabee, in what has become a Republican campaign tradition, staked out a position that would put him on the far right in Israel—somewhere beyond Danny Danon, the Likud hardliner whom Netanyahu has just appointed as Israel's representative to the United Nations.

Shilo is also an esoteric choice for fundraising. The Upper East Side or Beverly Hills it is not. Its population is just over 2,000; its middle-class exurban look owes something to government subsidies. Contrary to American stereotypes, most West Bank settlers are not American. Shilo's attraction, Huckabee explained, is that it was the site of the Tabernacle—the moveable sanctuary that the Bible describes as preceding the Temple in Jerusalem. Asked if he had qualms about campaigning in the occupied West Bank, at a settlement considered illegal under international law, Huckabee rejected the terms illegal, occupied and West Bank. Americans, he said, should "show support for Israelis and their capacity to build neighborhoods in their own country."

If he regarded the West Bank as part of Israel, he was asked, how did he feel about the fact that the Palestinian population doesn't have the right to vote in Israeli elections? "That's a decision for the Israeli government," he answered. Somehow, it was not a surprise that a Republican candidate in 2015 did not see denial of the right to vote as a violation of the democratic values that he insisted Israel and America share.

Before he exited, Huckabee got in a defense of Israeli ambassador Ron Dermer's lobbying of Congress against the Iran deal. "The whole purpose of an ambassador is to represent his or her country's interest to the country where they've been assigned," he said.

Well, not precisely in the way Huckabee described. The job is to represent one government to another. The criticism of Dermer is that he has become a participant in the partisan politics of the host country, during the present debate and before. Neither Netanyahu nor the GOP has shown much concern about the difference between those roles.

Netanyahu's choice of three new Israeli envoys in recent days underlines the point. The appointment of Danon appears bizarre at first glance. Danon—currently minister of science and chair of the central committee of Netanyahu's Likud Party—has been a critic from the right and open rival of the prime minister. The easy explanation is that Netanyahu has decided to exile him to an obscure position in New York, showing contempt for the United Nations in the bargain.

Yet Netanyahu held the same position in the 1980s. It gave him a high profile as a spokesperson for Israel in America, and was his springboard to the leadership of Likud. Danon is likely to be an excellent envoy to those GOP voters who can't see why Netanyahu even pays on-again, off-again lip service to the idea of a Palestinian state.

To Brazil, with a burgeoning and politicized Evangelical movement, Netanyahu is sending Dani Dayan, the former chair of the council of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. The new ambassador to Rome, another political appointee, is Fiamma Nirenstein—who moved to Israel two years ago immediately after serving as a member of Italy's parliament, representing ex-prime minister Silvio Berlusconi's right-wing People of Freedom Party. Predictably, Italian Jewish leaders are reportedly worried that the appointment will stain their community with dual loyalty.

The concern presumes a distinction between two polities, and between domestic conservatism and support for Netanyahu. Netanyahu—as a good Republican, one might say—doesn't respect such distinctions.

So far, though, Italian politicians don't campaign in Israel or in Israeli settlements. The blurring of lines is worst in the U.S.-Israel case. The strains that the GOP-Netanyahu relationship have put on U.S. Jewry do not need repeating here. The tradition of a bipartisan policy toward Israel is beginning to look like history. Instead, Israel is one more issue on which Republican candidates appear ready to compete in extremism for the next awful 15 months. If only it were possible to brief the next Republican political pilgrim that neither Gaza nor the West Bank is part of Israel, and that Israel itself is a country apart from the territory of GOP fantasy. 

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