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Why Jews Should Not Vote on Israel

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Observers have refused to let go of the question of how much of the Jewish vote the Republican nominee for 2012 can get. Despite the evidence to the contrary, Republicans and some journalists insist that large numbers of Jewish voters will leave their traditional home in the Democratic Party and move to the political right, because Barack Obama has been insufficiently pro-Israel.

There are good reasons for Jews to remain firmly in the Democratic camp. The Republicans' social conservatism is much-discussed, and has been publicly on display during the GOP debates. The least socially-conservative among them, Ron Paul, seems to have flirted with anti-Israel and even anti-Semitic elements in his politics.

But apart from (non-Orthodox) Jews' well-known liberalism, the discussion over a Jewish vote shift is predicated on a misunderstanding of the role of the United States in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: that the level of "pro-Israel-ness" of the president matters for determining outcomes.

American presidents are, in reality, constrained from exercising concrete influence over Arab-Israeli and Israeli-Palestinian relations. At best, they can facilitate peacemaking through their involvement, but they cannot force either Palestinians or especially Israel into doing anything they don't want to.

The history of Arab-Israeli and Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking has been one of direct interaction between the two sides, initiated only when one or both of them determines it is in their best interest to do so. The 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty came about because Anwar Sadat decided Egypt needed American aid and support to stabilize its domestic economy, and Menachem Begin saw the opportunity to remove the key Arab player in the conflict. Jimmy Carter only provided cover and some prompting in the event of actual negotiations.

The 1993 Oslo Accords came about when Yasser Arafat and his close advisers determined the PLO had reached the nadir of its influence and ability, and saw an agreement with Israel as the only way to save it -- while Yitzhak Rabin believed the Madrid talks were going nowhere, and Israel had to resolve the Palestinian issue to focus on other things, including Iran. Oslo was negotiated in near total secrecy: The U.S. was only informed once or twice about it.

The 1994 peace treaty between Jordan and Israel was also negotiated secretly, and built upon years of covert ties. Again, the U.S. was more surprised than expectant when it was announced.

When U.S. presidents have gotten involved, they have very publicly failed. The most dramatic example was Bill Clinton, who threw the entire weight of his office and his personal prestige into the 2000 Camp David negotiations. It's widely argued that Clinton and much of his team were determined to protect Ehud Barak and provide him cover for his discussions with the Palestinians and for his domestic politics. George W. Bush's Annapolis Convention went nowhere.

Beyond this, party and personal ideology of the American president are poor predictors of behavior. It was the Democratic Carter who "helped" Begin removed the major strategic enemy of Israel in 1979, while Democratic Clinton worked as hard as he could to achieve an agreement that met most of Israel's demands. And it was the Republican Ronald Reagan who sold advanced weaponry to Saudi Arabia, against the wishes of Israel; Republican George H.W. Bush who cut off billions of dollars in loan guarantees from Yitzhak Shamir (a Likud prime minister, no less); and Republican George W. Bush who demanded Israel allow elections in the Palestinian Authority in 2006, despite Jerusalem's insistence that doing so would bring Hamas to power (Bush overrode the Israelis).

Any American president will also be severely constrained by a host of other elements, including close allies still remaining among the Arab states; an uncertain future to the Arab Spring; an increasingly assertive Turkey; an unstable Iraq and possibly also Syria; and an Israeli government determined to ignore the consensus in the entire international community on settlements, and similar expectations spreading among American Jewry.

In an election year, it should also be expected that differences between the parties are highlighted, and politicians say things they don't necessarily mean.

Finally, it would be bad for Jews for Israel to become a permanent wedge issue in American politics: It would diminish support for Israel to smaller elements on the political spectrum, make it a constant battle, and drive Jews away from other issues of concern to the community.

We need, therefore, to be more realistic in our assessments. Let's remember our history, and avoid the trap of over-heated rhetoric. American Jews should not expect any of the Republican nominees to be any more pro-Israel than conditions allow.