"President Obama has thrown allies like Israel under the bus.” That’s what Mitt Romney, Republican candidate for president, said in the high-profile speech accepting his party’s nomination last week, repeating a slang phrase for sacrificing a friend for selfish reasons. Romney had deployed this phrase before, for example in May 2011 and January 2012. This criticism of Obama fits a persistent Republican critique. Specifically, several other recent presidential candidates used or endorsed the same “bus” formulation to describe Obama’s attitude toward Israel, including Herman Cain in May 2011, Rick Perry in September 2011, Newt Gingrich in January 2012, and Rick Santorum in February 2012.
These Republican attacks on Obama’s relations with Israel have several important implications for U.S. foreign policy. First, out of the many Middle East–related issues, Israel, and Israel alone, retains a permanent role in U.S. electoral politics, influencing how a significant numbers of voters — not only Jews but also Arabs, Muslims, Evangelical Christians, conservatives, and liberals — vote for president.
Second, attitudes toward Israel serve as a proxy for views on other Middle East issues: If I know your views on Israel, I have a good idea about your thinking on topics such as energy policy, Islamism, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, AKP-led Turkey, the Iranian nuclear buildup, intervention in Libya, the Mohamed Morsi presidency in Egypt, and the Syrian civil war.
Third, the Republican criticism of Obama points to a sea change in what determines attitudes toward Israel. Religion was once the key, with Jews the ardent Zionists and Christians less engaged. Today, in contrast, the determining factor is political outlook. To discern someone’s views on Israel, the best question to ask is not “What is your religion?” but “Who do you want for president?” As a rule, conservatives feel more warmly toward Israel and liberals more coolly. Polls show conservative Republicans to be the most ardent Zionists, followed by Republicans in general, followed by independents, Democrats, and lastly liberal Democrats. Yes, Ed Koch, the former mayor of New York City, also said, in September 2011, that Obama “threw Israel under the bus,” but Koch, 87, represents the fading old guard of the Democratic party. The difference between the parties in the Arab-Israeli conflict is becoming as deep as their differences on the economy or on cultural issues.
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