When President Obama said last week that Israel should return to its pre-1967 borders, Benjamin Netanyahu declared “Israel will not return to the indefensible boundaries of 1967.” Israel’s Prime Minister was clearly not pleased.
But perhaps even more perturbed was the American Right, with the potential 2012 Republican presidential candidates offering the following reactions: Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich called Obama’s Israeli-Palestinian policy a “disaster.” Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney said “President Obama has thrown Israel under the bus.” Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann said that America would be “cursed” by God if it “rejected” Israel. A critical Sarah Palin even advised Obama to read the Old Testament.
Congressman Ron Paul was also critical of Obama’s Israel policy, but from a different perspective: “While President Obama’s demand that Israel make hard concessions in her border conflicts may very well be in her long-term interest, only Israel can make that determination on her own, without pressure from the United States or coercion by the United Nations. Unlike this President, I do not believe it is our place to dictate how Israel runs her affairs.”
Paul added, “We should respect Israel’s sovereignty and not try to dictate her policy from Washington.”
This is not the first time Paul has taken this position.
When Israel attacked a nuclear reactor in Iraq in 1981 almost the entire US Congress voted to condemn the act, but Congressman Paul was one of the few Republicans who stood up and said Israel should not have to answer to America for how she defends herself. Remember, this was the Republican Party of Ronald Reagan that had condemned Israel, a coalition that included the most hawkish anti-Communists and the most fervent Christian conservatives.
Republicans condemned Israel’s actions in 1981 for two reasons: 1. The Reagan administration was making an ally of Saddam Hussein. 2. The Republican Party had not yet conflated Israel’s and America’s interests as identical.
Yesterday’s Cold Warriors might have wanted to defeat Communism and no doubt considered Israel an ally, but by and large their hawkishness reflected a desire to put America first. Yesterday’s religious Right was also thoroughly anti-Communist and they also considered Israel an ally—but their politics were primarily born of the belief that America was no longer putting God first.
Now both groups put Israel first.
Indeed, can you imagine Republicans today—especially GOP hawks and Christian conservatives—opposing Israel on anything?
In a speech before the Heritage Foundation in 1988, conservative author Russell Kirk said “Not seldom has it seemed as if some eminent Neoconservatives mistook Tel Aviv for the capital of the United States.” Kirk was describing the attitude of an increasingly influential part of the GOP, the neoconservatives, who would end up defining American foreign policy during the George W. Bush administration.
For most traditional conservatives of Reagan’s era, support for Israel did not necessarily mean unconditional support for absolutely everything Israel did. This is generally not true of the neoconservatives. If the US condemned Israel for attacking Iraq in 1981, it was not a shock that by the time the neoconservative Bush administration came to power two decades later America and Israel would more often begin to share the same enemies. There was Iraq, of course, and today while Ron Paul insists that Israel should do whatever it likes concerning the threat posed by Iran—the neoconservatives push for a US war with Iran. Is yet another Middle Eastern war in the US’s best interest? Whose interests are the neoconservatives putting first—America or Israel’s? Many in Reagan’s Republican Party might have asked this question. Few in Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich’s GOP would even dare to.
The Christian Coalition exemplified the power of the Religious Right in the 1980’s and 90’s and its founder Pat Robertson was regularly accused of being an anti-Semite throughout this period. Prominent neoconservative Norman Podhoretz wrote in 1995 “The conclusion is thus inescapable that Robertson, whether knowingly or unknowingly, has subscribed to and purveyed ideas that have an old and well-established anti-Semitic pedigree.” To read Robertson’s writings, Mr. Podhoretz was not being unreasonable in his criticism.
But if a Religious Right leader like Robertson might have been an anti-Semite during the Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton years—in 2008 he would endorse socially liberal Rudy Giuliani for president primarily because the televangelist thought the former New York City mayor was a “strong supporter” of Israel. In supporting a pro-choice and pro-gay-marriage candidate, was the supposedly conservative Christian Robertson putting God, America or Israel first? Giuliani was also the top 2008 choice of many of the neoconservatives—including former Robertson critic Norman Podhoretz—and for the same reasons as the televangelist. To the degree that some on the Religious Right of the Reagan era might have been anti-Semitic is deplorable. But so are the Christian coalitions of today who might follow Michelle Bachmann and Sarah Palin in the other extreme direction by allowing their latest interpretations of the Bible to dictate US foreign policy.
“Israel is our close friend,” says Congressman Paul in response to Obama’s recent comments on the Jewish state, as he simultaneously wonders why America should even have a dominant role in dictating that nation’s policies. Whether in 1981 or 2011, Ron Paul’s position on this controversial issue remains reasonable, consistent and traditionally conservative—while that of his party continues to fluctuate with the ideological and theological fashions of the day.