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How the GOP Became the Israel Party

When the unexpectedly detailed P5+1 framework agreement with Iran was announced last Thursday, Illinois Republican Mark Kirk made a bizarre comment [1]. “We all know” said the senator, that this is going to end with “a mushroom cloud somewhere near Tehran”—a result of Israel having to go to war to “clean up the mess” made by American and European negotiators. A few days earlier John McCain had expressed the wish that Israel “go rogue” [2] and attack Iran in order to upend the Iran negotiations.

It would have been one thing if such comments had come from backbench congressmen. But McCain is a former GOP presidential nominee, one of his party’s most prominent foreign policy spokesmen. Kirk is the co-sponsor of what was, until recently, the major Senate legislation intended to scuttle the Iran negotiations—a leader in GOP “pro-Israel” circles. Yet neither remark sparked a repudiation, or even any reaction at all. They were what one expects from the GOP these days, recklessness about war and peace fused with a passion for Israel. It was if all the diffuse sentiments which once fueled American nationalism and militarism were concentrated into a tight stream and displaced onto Israel, turning the country into the fantasy surrogate of American hawks. The conservative belief in American exceptionalism is like Zionism, Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol boasted. Kirk and McCain may know that Americans have little enthusiasm for another Mideast war; the U.S. Army understands perfectly well that no occupation of Iran could be sustained, and America would have zero international support if it tried. But no matter, they have Israel.

Even 20 years ago some Republican senator would have signaled some collegial disagreement with Kirk and McCain. A Bob Dole or Dick Lugar or a Mark Hatfield would have let on that this sentiment wasn’t the only opinion in the party. Now if there are any who dissent, they dare not speak. Benjamin Netanyahu has become the symbolic leader of the GOP, and even he is probably not as aggressive as most in the party would like him to be.

How did this transformation occur? How did the party of Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan come to this? The New York Times published two recent pieces exploring this subject. The first, by Peter Baker [3], takes off from observing Jeb Bush very quickly disassociating himself from former Secretary of State James Baker’s moderate speech at J Street; the second, by Eric Lipton, explored [4] the rapid growth in ties between hawkish pro-Israel donors and the Republican Party.

Baker’s piece fills out the basics: the top realist foreign policy voices of the 1980s and ‘90s GOP, Baker, and Colin Powell and Brent Scowcroft have no influence anymore. Jeb Bush threw James Baker under the bus at the first squawk from Sheldon Adelson; support for the Israeli right has become a Republican litmus test. To explain this, Baker mentions the new donors, the rise of right-wing evangelicals within the party, the vague sense emerging from 9/11 that Israel and the United States faced the same enemy in Islamic terrorism, and the pro-Israeli leadership of George W. Bush, who repudiated the foreign policy realism of his father.

Lipton focuses [4] on the new money stream. He shows that Adelson, Paul Singer, and other right-wing, pro-Israel donors, their spending unleashed by the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, have pushed the GOP past the Democrats as recipients of “pro-Israel” PAC money. He uncovers some fairly shocking facts, such as the rapid infusion of “pro-Israel” funds into Arkansas freshman senator Tom Cotton’s campaigns. This detailed reporting about Israel-related money in a widely read centrist publication is an important and welcome development: until recently, it was subject hidden in whisper and awkward euphemism, as when two election cycles ago, retired general and possible presidential candidate Wesley Clark [5] referred to “New York money people” pushing for war with Iran. Clark had to be walked through an apology with the assistance of Abe Foxman.

But important as the finance angle is, the subject has other important dimensions. If Sheldon Adelson and Paul Singer had tried to purchase the Mideast policy of the Republican Party 20 or 30 years ago, they would have failed, even under the new campaign finance rules. I am not persuaded by the evangelical argument: my rough sense is that Christan Zionism may have peaked 15 years ago within the evangelical movement; increasingly there are prominent evangelical voices calling for justice in Israel and Palestine. In any case, evangelicals hardly make up a decisive segment of the Republican electorate.

But the ground for Singer and Adelson and their cohorts has been prepared over 20 years. Several events from the 1990s were critical in the process. During the Reaganite 1980s, Pat Buchanan and Robert Novak were probably America’s most popular media conservatives. Neither was a big Israel backer (though Buchanan had been earlier in his career). Both saw Mideast conflicts through the lens of those in the American foreign policy establishment who knew the region: Israel had done deep wrongs to the Palestinians, which could and should be practically addressed; American had profound strategic needs to get along with the Arab world.


But in a sustained and fairly well documented strike, the neoconservative media establishment began a campaign against Buchanan, who had been far more polemical about Israel than Novak. Buchanan survived the attacks, but they damaged his standing as a Republican. Younger activists got the message that if you were ambitious about advancing in the conservative movement, better just leave the Israel subject alone—or better still, become a passionate Zionist. The attacks took someone who used to be at the core of the conservative polemic industry and essentially neutralized him. Buchanan eventually left the GOP, but the party was not better for it.

Another step in setting the stage for Adelson and Singer was Rupert Murdoch’s starting and funding of The Weekly Standard, perhaps the most successful political magazine [6] in history. Before the Standard, National Review was the most important conservative magazine, pro-Israel but hardly obsessively so, and open to an array of perspectives. James Burnham, the magazine’s principal strategic thinker through the 1970s, was highly skeptical of the Israel-U.S. alliance. But by the 1990s, Burnham was dead and NR had a wealthy competitor, one which could count on a reported $3 million annual subsidy from Murdoch (while Buckley had labored for years to keep NR afloat with four- and five-figure donations). Leading neoconservatives, including editors of the Standard, played the anti-Semite card against key National Review figures: aggressively in the case of Joseph Sobran, with more subtlety in the case of John O’Sullivan and Richard Neuhaus. By the late 1990s, National Review had capitulated, becoming indistinguishable from Commentary or The Weekly Standard on the Mideast and most other issues.

One should also mention the proliferation of hawkish pro-Israel conservative think tanks. There is the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, the Hudson Institute, AEI, and dozens of others: if you are conservative, interested in foreign policy, and want a think tank job in D.C., being hawkishly pro-Israel is the way to go. Pro-Israel hawks have done more in 20 years than create a fundraising apparatus designed to impose pro-Israel litmus tests upon Republican politicians; they have forged an entire ideological party inside the Beltway, comprised of think tank staffers and ideological journalists, all of whom can be reliably counted on to advocate for some version of a right-wing Israeli perspective whenever circumstances require it. These forces weren’t in place when George H.W. Bush faced off with Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir over Israeli settlements in 1991, but they rule in Republican circles now.

I am pessimistic about the Republican party’s short term prospects to overcome and reverse this takeover, but not about the issue overall. All my senses tell me that President Obama, and what remains of a centrist and liberal foreign policy establishment, will succeed in persuading the country that the deal with Iran is a large net-plus for American interests; it helps enormously that what was agreed upon in Lausanne seems to have surpassed expectations, which has been remarked upon by quite a few observers who expected far less. Republican politicians will move on to other subjects if they sense the public is not with them in opposing the Iran deal, Sheldon Adelson notwithstanding. In the medium term, the defeat of Mark Kirk next year—altogether possible—would signal that blind obeisance to a foreign country can be a loser politically.

Finally, there are underlying dynamics in the Middle East which all of Sheldon Adelson’s money cannot overcome. Most important is that Iran has clearly become one of the more stable, modern, and democratic countries in the region. Another is that Israel is becoming a harder sell to Americans. As David Shulman [7] put it in the New York Review of Books, “What really counts is that the Israeli electorate is still dominated by hypernationalist, in some cases protofascist, figures. It is in no way inclined to make peace.” Information flows quite freely in the age of the Internet, and these Mideast realities are slowly seeping into the American consciousness. The same factors which now make divestment from companies doing business with Israel an important issue on many American college campuses cannot forever be ignored by a large political party competing for power in a free society. The process, however, is going to take a while.

Scott McConnell is a TAC founding editor.

24 Comments (Open | Close)

24 Comments To "How the GOP Became the Israel Party"

#1 Comment By EliteCommInc. On April 8, 2015 @ 12:16 am

I deeply, deeply, deeply miss Robert Novak. I still remeber having to cancel my flight to his Washington, conference.

It is painful to think what a gaping hole he left on the landscape.

#2 Comment By Neuroendocrinologist On April 8, 2015 @ 1:37 am

A perceptive and incisive piece. Again I’m reminded why I read this online magazine.

#3 Comment By TTT On April 8, 2015 @ 7:41 am

Leading neoconservatives, including editors of the Standard, played the anti-Semite card against key National Review figures: aggressively in the case of Joseph Sobran

Mr. McConnell, you yourself rescinded a job offer at TAC to Sobran because he wouldn’t stop making speeches to the Institute for Historical Review. If there was any “card playing,” it was honestly dealt.

#4 Comment By Kurt Gayle On April 8, 2015 @ 8:25 am

Scott, back on Jan. 30th 2006 you wrote in TAC something of a delayed obituary for the late Senator Eugene McCarthy. Your observations then fit with your article today – and, indeed, with this moment in history:

“[Eugene McCarthy’s] views—and particularly his long frustration with the limitations of two-party hegemony—have a great deal of common ground with this magazine…If you opposed the war in 1967 and early 1968, it was tremendously frustrating that there was almost no established politician who would stand up against it, seemingly no chance that it could be ended or even combated through electoral means, and that much of the vocal opposition to the war was monopolized by the hard Left. That would change over the next few years, but it was certainly McCarthy’s campaign that broke the establishment logjam… He and only he among established political figures was willing to take the first plunge and take up the antiwar banner against Johnson in late 1967.

“In his later years, his views—if not his political style—were rather Buchananite. He was long a believer that the United States should control its borders, writing in the 1990s an immigration-control polemic entitled A Colony of the World: the United States Today, taking issue with the bipartisan establishment idea that the U.S. should serve as a kind of drainage vessel for the surplus populations of other nations, and serving as an advisory-board member of the immigration-control group FAIR. He was a trade protectionist as well and naturally was skeptical about the Iraq War.

“In the winter of 2000, when Pat Buchanan was running for president on the Reform Party ticket, Kara Hopkins and I had dinner with Gene McCarthy at Washington’s Jockey Club. He had spoken favorably of Buchanan’s presidential bid to a reporter from the L.A. Times, and it was our intent to feel out whether Gene would publicly endorse Pat or perhaps even sign on to an important advisory role in the campaign…There was something special and deeply democratic about a poetic, intelligent senator stepping forward to mobilize and give political focus to all that unrepresented sentiment. Pat Buchanan has written recently that a Gene McCarthy for our day will emerge soon. We should be so fortunate.”

#5 Comment By Johann On April 8, 2015 @ 11:11 am

It is a very good article, except that there was more to Pat Buchanan’s exit from the Republican party than his rejection of Zionism. He also rejects global free trade and always has. Of course, we don’t have free trade, and the Republicans are complicit in that fact. Free trade does not require deals such as NAFTA. It only requires – well, free trade. The so-called free trade agreements are really just giving special interests trade advantages. As usual, when government gives a bill or any other action a name, its usually the opposite of what its name implies.

#6 Comment By Ken T On April 8, 2015 @ 11:20 am

Good analysis, but I think you are too quick to downplay the Christian Zionist influence. When you say that it peaked 15 years ago, I can’t imagine what you are talking about. You may hear “prominent evangelical voices calling for justice”, but from where I sit, any such voices are being completely drowned out by the end-timers. At least in terms of what is filtering out to the general public, the Christian Zionist voice is much louder now than it was 15 years ago.

Add that to Rupert Murdoch’s megaphone and Adelson’s money, put it all against the backdrop of the military-industrial complex that sees any war anywhere as good for business, and there you have it.

#7 Comment By Chris in Appalachia On April 8, 2015 @ 12:09 pm

Not to be inflammatory, but do Jewish people have any concern over a backlash? Thinking about 20th Century history, why would they ever want to put themselves in that position again?

#8 Comment By Andrew Zook On April 8, 2015 @ 12:37 pm

Great points, but I’m not as comfortable with this…” I am not persuaded by the evangelical argument: my rough sense is that Christan Zionism may have peaked 15 years ago within the evangelical movement; increasingly there are prominent evangelical voices calling for justice in Israel and Palestine. In any case, evangelicals hardly make up a decisive segment of the Republican electorate.”

I’ll admit I base my objection on personal anecdote, and my own little corner within evangelicalism. Maybe you do have your finger on the broader pulse? But I do believe the evangelical faction is a decisive segment. They are the fervent base of the GOP and every voting evangelical (and GOP) I know is pro-Israel, many to the extreme. There is never mention (at least positively) of your “prominent” evangelicals calling for justice. Daring to question Israel is almost at the level of sin. They would be bereft if their favorite “christian” politician were to change his tune on Israel. The abandoning of him and the looking for someone else who was pro-Israel would commence immediately, without so much as a pondering pause… And so such a person (one who would dare question Israel/zionism) in the GOP rarely sees the light of a day in office.
Maybe my county is an outlier, but if Mr Pitts publicly questioned Israel, he would be in danger of losing his seat for the first time in his very long congressional career, because his biggest chunk of support, the voting evangelicals, would run from him like he was on fire and run to the first GOPer in the county who stood up and said, “I’m just like Pitts, except on Israel.”

#9 Comment By collin On April 8, 2015 @ 2:01 pm

Obama…persuading the country that the deal with Iran is a large net-plus for American interests.

Unfortunately I am not seeing it and frankly it might be up to HRC and the 2016 election will do a lot to settle this issue. With an improving economy and Obamacare doing OKish, there is not another major issue the Republicans can hold against Obama and the Democrats. (Let us say Gay Marriage, Immigration and soon income inequality are not especially large.) But nuclear Iran and Israel security is good red meat for conservative radio so this might be the guiding issue of 2016.

In reality, breaking the deal will weaken our negotiating position as China is fast tracking all kinds of deals with Iran as we speak.

#10 Comment By philadelphialawyer On April 8, 2015 @ 2:41 pm

Excellent article.

The one factor not mentioned, in my view, is how easily hawkishness in general can be morphed into pro Israel hawkishness. As I see it, there is no real divorce between Reagan’s hyper inflated threat mongering about the USSR and communism in general and reheating of the Cold War, and the current hyper inflated, pro Israel, threat mongering about Iran, various Arab countries, regimes, and groups, and “Islam” in general, and the overheated GWOT.

What sells, not merely with donors, but with a certain constituency at the polls, is a hyper masculine, hyper aggressive, falsely “realist” (in the “Munich” mode), “who lost ——” (fill in the blank), style of politics. Some call it “paranoid.” I call it bellicose. And it is not even confined to military and FP issues. What sells, and, yeah, I am talking about to married White men, the South, the Great Plains, Conservative Christians, the Mountain States, the populist Right, the Tea Party, and so on, is anger and hate and punishment and “being tough.”

And it really doesn’t matter all that much whether on the receiving end of all that “toughness” are the “welfare bums,” racial minorities, GLBT folks, Muslims, communists and leftists generally, liberals, petty criminals, not so petty criminals, and so on. Or whether they live in the USA or abroad. Shoot ’em, bomb ’em, lock ’em up and throw away the key, execute ’em, etc., etc. is always the way to go.

Being “tough” is the answer to each and every problem, and folks like Reagan (and Nixon, at least in his pre détente iterations) and the other take no prisoner anti Communists from Joe McCarthy right on down, helped embed that into the national psyche and/or played to it already being there and thereby helped make it more or less permanent.

#11 Comment By EliteCommInc. On April 8, 2015 @ 2:49 pm

“It only requires – well, free trade. The so-called free trade agreements are really just giving special interests trade advantages.”

Well, in the real, “free trade” as you suggest does not exist. It can’t. Trade must have some manner or regulatory binds, measures and even controls.

Recent history has demonstrated that left to their own devices — the principles of trade – hinesty dealings – are not enough.

#12 Comment By Myron Hudson On April 8, 2015 @ 3:07 pm

Great post, but I agree with some other commenters here: The End Timers are extremely agitated right now. My poor father tells me that everything on Fox News matches Revelations. He’s not alone in that. I don’t have the heart to tell him that it’s deliberate. But it is. The noise machine that sold the Iraq war is now selling the End Times, using similar distortions and falsehoods. That’s not going to go away anytime soon.

#13 Comment By Dain On April 8, 2015 @ 3:12 pm

If the conversation around Israel is changing, and it is, it’s almost entirely due to the left, primarily younger progressives. Paleocons and libertarians aren’t hawkish like neocons but neither do I see them getting on board with the BDS movement etc.

(I’m not saying I support BDS, just taking stock of the zeitgeist.)

#14 Comment By Dennis Brislen On April 8, 2015 @ 9:30 pm

Obama is holding the best hand here.

It’s a good agreement, our European friends want it (and likely will relieve sanctions on their own anyway), the public is wearing tired of drones and bombing, the JCS are adamantly opposed to bombing and/or invasion and if the GOP forces this issue Obama has the clout of the bully pulpit.

If the GOP wants to run on a campaign plank based on war with Iran, they will lose badly. It should be noted that the message from Bibi, quickly assimilated by the GOP warmakers, changed within a day from one of bombs and war to: we can get a “better” agreement.

Right. “I’ve believed six impossible things before breakfast”, saith the White Queen.

#15 Comment By Michael N Moore On April 9, 2015 @ 8:33 am

University of Washington professor Rebecca U. Thorpe points out in “The American Warfare State”, her definitive study of the political economy of military spending, a significant majority of House Members represent districts that are economically dependent on military spending. The arms industry cherry picks or creates sub-contractors in ex-urban and rural areas where they become the monopoly employer. This particularly impacts Republicans who have become the war party.

As Patrick Tyler points out in his book “Fortress Israel”, Israel has become the war country. Thus we have a match made in Hell.

#16 Comment By Andrew Zook On April 9, 2015 @ 12:54 pm

Thanks Ken T and philadelphialawyer…I thought I might be the only one with the thought on christian zionists, although I think you both said it better. I continue to believe that it will be a reason Ted Cruz has a very good shot. If he frames it right, that he’s the only pro-Israel one in the bunch, most evangelicals who identify with the GOP will flock to him. They have to. Their religion demands it, and if they don’t, their peers will not let them off the hook. They will effectively not be considered “evangelical” or “christian” anymore…

And philadelphialawyer, “bellicose” is an apt term. I find it amazing how otherwise good, decent christians, who swear up and down the river about following Jesus and are generally “good” people, can explicitly or implicitly support things that are sometimes truly hellish in nature, when a particular “out” group comes up in discussion. (Explains very well the gross phenomenon found a few years back of evangelicals being the group most in support of torture..) It saddens me to no end, and as a Christian myself it pains me to witness it because it besmirches the name, the character and message of Jesus Christ.

Many more of us, me included, need to have more spine and stand up and say, “No, that’s not Christian – that’s not Jesus. You don’t sound like a Christian but you do sound like a pagan or something else…” and then if that doesn’t give them pause, turn and walk away…

#17 Comment By Demitris Kouris On April 10, 2015 @ 10:10 am

I would just change the title of the article to: “How the GOP Became the Likud Party.”

#18 Comment By blue On April 10, 2015 @ 2:06 pm

I remember watching Pat Buchanan on live-TV and a video of an Israeli jet was tearing up some real or imagined enemy appeared on the screen behind him and Pat Buchanan commented “There are your tax dollars at work.” One knew with absolute certainty that he would not last much longer on mainstream media.

#19 Comment By PilgrimSoul On April 10, 2015 @ 4:57 pm

Demitris Kouris, you are so right. And it will remain so for some time, since Likud ideas have virtually taken over the political class in Israel. Americans are no longer confronted merely with an Israel Lobby, but we must now deal with a Likud Lobby, along with the concomitant arrogance and megalomania of Mr. Netanyahu.

One thing that is being missed here is the influence of money. All these GOPers and racing to get money from AIPAC bundlers. And that, by itself, is an incredible assault on American sovereignty, that our foreign policy is being influenced and ultimately determined–at least in the Middle East–by money from a foreign nation.

#20 Comment By Bob Policy On April 11, 2015 @ 1:49 pm

The Republican Party became interventionist when Eisenhower took it away from Taft.
In 1956, Eisenhower famously interfered with Britain, France, and Israel as they pursued their own vital interests, France subsequently withdrew from NATO’s military wing, neither country helped the U.S. in Viet Nam, France supplied Israel with nuclear weapons, and Eisenhower came to regret his decision by 1958.

In 1967, the U.S. cheered Israel’s victory over the Arab States.

Later, Nixon, no “neoconservative” saved Israel’s bacon against Kissinger’s advice (“I like the old woman.”).

Jewish activists have certainly supported Israel, but they are less important than Evangelical Protestants, who, unlike Catholics, love the Old Testament and love Israel, with,of course, numerous exceptions.

Finally, Islamic Activists have embarked on attempts to exterminate Christians throughout the Middle East, with even the Vatican in their rhetorical sights, and this resonates with many Americans who don’t especially care about Israel, aside from its instrumental uses.

Looking back on Lindbergh’s famous statement that Jews and partisans of England were promoting war, many people focused on the “Jews,” and neglected the fact that there were twenty times as many English partisans.

We should not make the same analytic mistake again.

#21 Comment By Andrew Nichols On April 12, 2015 @ 3:39 am

Money – the dominant factor in US oligarch politics.

#22 Comment By Atm On April 12, 2015 @ 8:27 am

I like the work. Title should be how the gop came to support the Licud party the follow up story would be how the GOP represent many of same ideals as the Likud. Third story might be, how the GOP tries to destroy the left in Israel.

#23 Comment By IND Since 2004 On April 12, 2015 @ 9:36 am

It’s very sad. The GOP used to be one of America’s great institutions. Now it’s the epicenter of a disease.

#24 Comment By Windy City Observer On April 12, 2015 @ 10:39 am

” the defeat of Mark Kirk next year—”

I agree that this is important. Kirk is near the top of the all-time big-recipient list of “pro Israel” donors, which is another way of saying that like many another Illinois politician he found a novel way to profit from his office.

It would be great if Kirk were to be defeated by a clean candidate who promised to represent America rather than Israel. Particularly in the primary.