While the world focuses on elections in the United States this evening, many Israelis are talking about which candidate will be better or worse for Israel. Fortunately for the rest of us, American voters have American interests to worry about.
Yes, the US has interests.
Earlier this year, a retired senior US official with impeccable credentials dutifully noted that Israel’s aid package has not suffered from Washington’s budget problems. Its security has not become a partisan debate. But despite all that support, he cautioned, Israel has a tendency to believe it is the center of the world.
Sometimes Israelis forget that while Israel is an important US interest, it is not its central interest, Anthony Cordesman told a panel of former Israeli security chiefs and high-ranking officials. “[America’s] major strategic interest in the Middle East lies in energy, it lies in the flow of petroleum exports through the Gulf,” he said.
“I think this is sometimes something that Israelis forget. You are an important strategic interest, but you cannot be the center of our strategic interests. They are too broad, too global,” he added.
Those interests are ones that no viable candidate for the US presidency would – or could – change overnight. As a strategic interest, Israel is part of a larger, slow-moving and predictable puzzle of US foreign policy, for better or for worse.
Regarding issues that do affect Israel, there is virtually no daylight between the two candidates’ positions.
Both candidates have declared virtually identical stances on Iran.
Barak Obama has provided more military aid (equipment, money, intelligence cooperation and joint exercizes) to Israel than any previous president. There’s no reason to think Romney would act any differently.
Obama has criticized Israeli settlement building, but in the same neutered diplomatic language used by his Republican and Democratic predecessors. Mitt Romney has no record or real position.
Mitt Romney was recorded saying “there’s no way” Israel and the Palestinians can reach peace, „so what you do is, you say, you move things along the best way you can. You hope for some degree of stability, but you recognize that this is going to remain an unsolved problem…and we kick the ball down the field and hope that ultimately, somehow, something will happen and resolve it.”
In words, Barak Obama has pledged movement on the peace process. In reality, he has done little more than kick the ball down the field.
The only discernible difference between the two candidates and their presidencies’ possible effects on Israel is the reportedly sour relationship between Obama and Netanyahu; Romney and Netanyahu have known each other for years. But while that previous relationship may serve as a nice step toward publicly warmer relations, it doesn’t mean Romney’s policies vis-à-vis Israel would be any different than Obama’s.
So what will change on January 21, 2013 after the next US president is sworn in? Virtually nothing as far as Israel is concerned. Polls gauging which candidate enjoys more support in the tiny Jewish state and the attention paid to them verges on hysterics.
But while the discourse and debate in Israel is superfluous, it is also indicative of a prominent sentiment among the Israeli public, political echelons and media. At least for a moment before Israel’s own election season goes into full swing, Israelis can pretend the major issues it faces lie 6,000 miles away in Washington.
The Middle East has undergone a massive transformation under Israel’s nose, but Jerusalem has made no major changes. The prospects of resolving the Palestinian conflict in a way that serves Israel’s declared interests have all but evaporated, but nobody in power is talking about what to do. Domestic Israeli socioeconomic conditions have continued to deteriorate since Israelis demonstrated against them a year and a half ago, but no serious politician is talking about the kind of dramatic system-wide change the people demanded.
Israelis have their own problems. The obsessive attention paid to American elections and their consequences for Israel in many cases boils down to pretending that change on the other side of the pond would somehow improve the situation here.
The only thing that should matter for Israelis is that there is an American president, not whether a “(D)” or an “(R)” is thrown onto the end of his name.
On the other hand, for Americans: your future is at stake. Sort of.