Debate Summary: Israel, Israel, Israel, Israel And, oh yeah, America

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One striking impression of this debate was that out of some 17,000 words uttered by both candidates and the moderator, about half of them were about domestic policy. Neither candidate wanted to talk about foreign policy – because the differences between them are negligible. Out of this half, about 1500 words were devoted to the subject of Israel – around 20 percent. And it's not as if the candidates disagreed: indeed, they competed for the role of Israel's Best Friend. Obama was first to pledge allegiance to Tel Aviv, less than ten minutes after the starting bell. Outlining the foundations of his foreign policy, he averred:

u201CWhat I've done throughout my presidency and will continue to do, is, number one, make sure that these countries are supporting our counterterrorism efforts; number two, make sure that they are standing by our interests in Israel's security, because it is a true friend and our greatest ally in the region.u201D

According to the President, Israel's security is our number two priority not only in the region, but also in a much broader sense, second only to going after our own enemies. That's an odd way to define our hierarchy of foreign policy values: what about the security and prosperity of the region as a whole? The Israel-pandering was obsessive and I'm not the only one who noticed it.

No aspect of our Middle Eastern policy was discussed without reference to how it might play in Israel. When Syria came up, Obama made a point of saying that although u201CSyrians are going to have to determine their own future,u201D our efforts to aid the rebels are being carried out u201Cin consultation with our partners in the region, including Israel, which obviously has a huge interest in seeing what happens in Syria.u201D Romney chimed in:

u201CSecondly, Syria's an opportunity for us because Syria plays an important role in the Middle East, particularly right now. Syria is Iran's only ally in the Arab world. It's their route to the sea. It's the route for them to arm Hezbollah in Lebanon, which threatens, of course, our ally Israel… We need to make sure as well that we coordinate this effort with our allies and particularly with – with – with Israel.u201D

Never mind what the people of Syria want: it's all about what Israel wants. This duet was sung in many variations. On Egypt, the President warned:

u201CThey have to abide by their treaty with Israel. That is a red line for us, because not only is Israel's security at stake, but our security is at stake if that unravels.u201D

This wasn't enough for Romney, however, who came back with:

u201CWe have to also stand by our allies. I think the tension that existed between Israel and the United States was very unfortunate.u201D

Not to be out-Israeled, the President struck back:

u201COur alliances have never been stronger. In Asia, in Europe, in Africa, with Israel where we have unprecedented military and intelligence cooperation, including dealing with the Iranian threat.u201D

After all that, Bob Schieffer decided it was time to u201Cmove on to the next segment: red lines, Israel, and Iran.u201D A visitor from Mars might be forgiven for being confused at this point: didn't the last segment cover that territory? Us earthlings understand, however, that when it comes to foreign policy, one can never kowtow too long or too low in the direction of Tel Aviv, and so Schieffer gave the candidates yet another opportunity to prostrate themselves before King Bibi:

u201CWould either of you be willing to declare that an attack on Israel is an attack on the United States, which of course is the same promise that we give to our close allies like Japan? And if you made such a declaration, would not that deter Iran? It's certainly deterred the Soviet Union for a long, long time when we made that – when we made that promise to our allies.u201D

The President took over 250 words to declare his undying loyalty to the Jewish state, wielding all the familiar phrases endlessly uttered by both candidates over the course of the campaign like some sort of semi-religious litany: u201C a true friend,u201D u201Cour greatest ally in the region,u201D etc. – although purists will note u201Cin the regionu201D as a modifier is highly suspicious.

Repeating Israeli propaganda almost verbatim – including the long-debunked mistranslation of Ahmadinejad supposedly calling for Israel to be u201Cwiped off the mapu201D – Obama again touted u201Cthe strongest military and intelligence cooperation between our two countries in historyu201D as he committed this country to war under the murkiest of circumstances. His pledge to defend Israel against u201Cattacku201D raises some interesting questions: e.g. is that Hezbollah drone incursion grounds for us to start bombing Lebanon? What about Palestinian resistance to u201Csettleru201D incursions? But the President wasn't too concerned with nuance: he was too busy threatening Iran, hailing the u201Ccrippling sanctionsu201D and gloating that u201Ctheir economy is a shambles.u201D

Yes, and so is ours, a better Romney might have added, but instead he chimed in:

u201CWell, first of all, I – I want to underscore the – the same point the president made, which is that if I'm president of the United States, when I'm president of the United States, we will stand with Israel. And – and if Israel is attacked, we have their back, not just diplomatically, not just culturally, but militarily. That's number one.u201D

The Republican nominee went on to establish his pro-Israel credentials by mentioning that he had made the same point at Israel's Herzliya Conference, where he laid out u201Cseven stepsu201D to war dealing with Iran, but only mentioned two.

Not to be outdone, Obama went much further than he's ever gone on the Iran issue, coming very close to Romney's (and Netanyahu's) position:

u201CWe're not going to allow Iran to perpetually engage in negotiations that lead nowhere. And I've been very clear to them, you know, because of the intelligence coordination that we do with a range of countries, including Israel, we have a sense of when they would get breakout capacity, which means that we would not be able to intervene in time to stop their nuclear program, and that clock is ticking.u201D

Until now, the key difference between the two candidates on Iran has been this issue of u201Ccapabilityu201D – with Romney naturally echoing Netanyahu's stance that we must strike as soon as we – somehow – know Iran has the mere theoretical capacity to assemble a nuclear weapon. Presumably Netanyahu will supply us with the relevant u201Cintelligence.u201D The Obama administration, on the other hand, has been saying their red line is a clear attempt to actually acquire such weapons – that is, until now. u201CThe clock is tickingu201D on Iran, Obama growled – and, as of Monday's debate, it seems to be ticking much louder and faster.

Romney, in danger of being out-Israeled, struck back, attacking what he called the President's u201Capology tour.u201D This, he declared, was seen by the Bad Guys as a sign of u201Cweakness,” along with our failure to openly side with the leaders of the u201CGreen Revolution – who neither asked for nor wanted such a declaration. Another sign of u201Cweaknessu201D was u201CWhen the president said he was going to create daylight between ourselves and Israel that – that they noticed that as well.u201D

The u201Cdaylightu201D citation was reported by the Washington Post in the context of a 2009 meeting between Obama and US Jewish leaders on the collision between the US and Israel over the Palestinian question, not Iran. The delegation was dismayed by the President's insistence that construction of u201Csettlementsu201D on Arab-owned land does not serve American interests – the same position taken by George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Bush Senior.

As this debate demonstrated, the degree of daylight between Israel and the US is rapidly diminishing to the point of near imperceptibility. Unlike his predecessors, this President would never dare withhold aid, and as far as the Israelis are concerned the White House can kvetch about the u201Csettlementsu201D until the cows come home.

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