Still to be thoroughly digested is last weekend’s spectacle of several prominent Republicans descending on Las Vegas in search of Sheldon Adelson’s blessing. The “Sheldon primary,” as the Washington Post dubbed it, did not go unnoticed. The Post ran a lengthy piece prior to the event focusing on the outsized role large donors now play in the aftermath of recent Supreme Court campaign finance decisions, as well as on Adelson’s stated desire to nominate a so-called moderate and electable candidate. J.J. Goldberg, a Forward editor and author of a perceptive 1996 book about Jewish power, played with the notion of whether or not it was an anti-Semitic “stereotype” to wonder about a rich Jew seeking to supervise the Republican nomination process:
Now, before you go accusing the Post (or me) of spreading anti-Semitic stereotypes, consider what the word means. Merriam-Webster defines “stereotype” as “an often unfair and untrue belief.” The World English Dictionary calls it “a set of inaccurate, simplistic generalizations.” Cardwell’s 1996 Dictionary of Psychology defines it rather more broadly as “a fixed, over generalized belief.” Nobody’s definition seems to include a straightforward recitation of facts that one would prefer remain hidden. That probably falls under the category of “a no-no.”
Jon Stewart mocked the Vegas confab, astonished that Adelson could squeeze from tough guy New Jersey governor Chris Christie a groveling apology for referring to the West Bank occupied territories as “occupied territories.” Stewart is perhaps the nation’s most visible critic of the Israel lobby, but he has ability only to make the young fans laugh at its power, not actually to challenge it. Humor may already have had some impact on the landscape. Last year Saturday Night Live produced, but did not air live, a skit depicting senators asking Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel whether he would fellate a donkey to demonstrate his loyalty to Israel. (The clip now seems offline but was widely circulated in the days following its production).
But most of the Sheldon primary commentary fell short of describing what Adelson hopes to gain from spending tens and perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars to influence the Republican nomination. Pat Buchanan did observe that Adelson was no garden variety Israel supporter, but an advocate of an American nuclear first strike on Iran (in the desert, as a demonstration of what we will do to Tehran). The best indications are that Adelson’s main requirement for a candidate would be his readiness to engage America in war for Israel’s benefit. And though Adelson is an American citizen, he has not minced words about where deepest loyalties lie: he has said he regretted serving in the U.S. military, (as opposed to Israel’s) and told interviewers he hopes his youngest son could serve as a sniper in the Israeli army.
One shouldn’t really blame Adelson for this; he is free to be loyal to whatever country he wants and to advocate whatever wars he wants others to fight on its behalf. But the real question is about the Republican Party—why do its aspiring high office seekers feel that it is unproblematic to kiss Adelson’s ring. This was a party once accustomed to bathing itself in patriotism, and in truth it is impossible to imagine any past Republican president—including George W. Bush, he who filled his White House and Pentagon with neoconservatives—behaving in quite this way.
That would make the most surprising participant in the Adelson trucklefest former Florida governor Jeb Bush. There is a lot of history here, two presidents’ worth. The first, George H.W. Bush, had a 70 percent approval rating in the fall of 1991, nearly twice what Obama’s is today. He had prevailed in the Cold War, overseen the peaceful reunification of Germany and the end of the Warsaw Pact. He had built masterfully a vast diplomatic coalition in support of a war to reverse Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. The American economy was limping, true, but Bush wasn’t yet blamed. He decided to spend part of his considerable foreign policy capital on pushing for a peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. That of course required that Israel not continue its full bore settlement building program on the West Bank, then relatively small in scale. Bush ordered a four month pause on American loan guarantees which Israel needed to pursue its West Bank settlement program. It was not immediately clear who won the ensuing confrontation: AIPAC responded with a full-bore lobbying effort; Bush lamented it; and heavy hitters in the Israel lobby purported to be aghast at Bush’s criticism of their efforts. Meanwhile, Israeli voters turned out the right wing settlement building party, and elected Yitzhak Rabin, who felt deeply ambivalent about a peace process with the Palestinians but ultimately pursued it, until he was assassinated by a pro-settler Israeli.
Bush meanwhile faced a political firestorm in the American Jewish community, who rallied against him with dollars. The only election on the near horizon was an off-year senate race in Pennsylvania, where close Bush ally Richard Thornburgh was leading handily. But suddenly his opponent, Harris Wofford, became flush with cash, came from behind, and won. The national press got a new message: Bush was vulnerable—which influenced the calculations of other politicians. From a 70 percent approval rating in September 1991, Bush would become a one-term president 14 months later. (The best account of this episode is the J.J. Goldberg book referenced above.)
Complicated events have many causes, and either a stronger economy, or the absence of challenges from Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot, would probably have resulted in Bush’s re-election. But one has to point to AIPAC’s settlement maneuvers in the fall of 1991 as one of three or four factors that produced a Bush defeat. According to those who know him, Bush himself drew that conclusion.
So too did his son, George W. Bush, who seemed to vow to never get out Israeled by any candidate, and stacked his administration accordingly. The Iraq war was the result.
What then does Jeb, the former Florida governor, conclude from all this? His appearance at Sheldon’s event is an early and important indication. It’s perhaps not decisive, but it is clear that he has concluded there’s nothing wrong, politically or morally, with paying homage to a loyal-to-Israel warmonger. For all those who might have hoped Jeb had learned something useful from the failed presidency of his brother, it’s a pretty clear indication. Most probably, he has not.