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America Helps Best When It Helps Itself

As presidential candidates are winnowed and left for chaff, we can confidently expect the return of the quadrennial Jewish question: “Who’s best on Israel?”

I set aside here the issue of how central the answer to that question ought to be in determining how a person votes. That’s a debate and a half in itself. But for now, let’s just consider how the question might appropriately be answered.

Typically, the organized Jewish community regards as best that candidate who is most emphatically indulgent of Israel’s demands and requests. For good or for ill, all serious candidates take their campaign rhetoric from the same playbook: America’s relationship with Israel is “unshakable,” “Israel is our ally in the war on terror,” and so forth.

True, now and then a candidate will call for a more “even-handed” approach to the Israeli-Arab conflict, and then spend many hours clarifying, apologizing, re-assuring Jewish audiences that he — and now, at last, we must add “or she” — did not intend in any way to call a new play.

The candidates learn early on, and sometimes painfully, that what they may merely whisper about Israel in a remote and lifeless desert will reverberate for weeks and even months, amplified a hundred-fold, throughout Jewish precincts across the country. For certain purposes, we are all ears, all the time. Knowing that, most candidates will stand firmly within the narrow square marked “pro-Israel” — roughly, the Aipac line.

Now, as the 2008 election campaign finally moves into gear, is may be well to ask what it is that America can do on Israel’s behalf. What is it that Israel most needs from its American friend and protector?

Some would say money. Others might say shared intelligence, or support at the United Nations, or the latest in weaponry, or, more generally, big — very big — brotherness.

All these miss what is by far the most important contribution the United States can make to Israel. What Israel needs from its mega-friend across the oceans is a strong and healthy America, an America with a robust economy, an America again admired and respected by the family of nations, an America with a health care system that works and public schools where students learn, an America that is a model of civil liberties and of civil rights, America as it might be but has not been for some time now.

In short, that president is best for Israel who is best for America.

At first blush, that sounds like a no-brainer, or very nearly so. But the moment you follow that with the name of the incumbent president, you can see the difficulty.

There are more than a few people both here in America, as also in Israel — including Ariel Sharon in his day and now and then Ehud Olmert as well — who believe that George W. Bush is the best friend Israel has ever had in the White House. They discount his indifference, until quite recently, to an energetic peace process, his reluctance to having America play its essential role as a broker between Israelis and Palestinians. Indeed, many of them are grateful for that indifference, since it has amounted to giving Israel a free hand in its neighborhood.

But whether one applauds the uses to which Israel has put its free hand or laments them, there is a deeper and more disturbing truth about the Bush presidency: By just about any measure, it has been a failure — in my view, a calamitous failure the full scope of which we will not recognize until well into the term of Bush’s successor.

Give him high marks for his work on AIDS; hope he earns high marks for his belated intervention in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. But understand that the mischief that Bush has done, not only in the misbegotten war in Iraq but to the Constitution itself, will not be easily repaired.

No Child Left Behind was a foreseeable failure; tax relief for the wealthiest Americans was and remains an instance of legalized greed; the regulations issued by the Environmental Protection Agency are scandalous; the continuing existence of Guantanamo and diminishing scope of habeas corpus are embarrassments.

Every survey of peoples around the world attests to the fact that respect for America has essentially collapsed. In Russia and France, in Sweden and Germany, in China and Spain and Argentina, a majority of the population has a negative opinion of the United States, even as majorities in many of these same nations have a positive opinion of the American people.

The value of the friendship of a nation so reviled is necessarily cheapened. So close the books, quickly, on this quackery of knaves.

If the criterion for judging who is best for Israel requires a preliminary judgment regarding who is best for America, then I confess to strong sympathies for one of the candidates. But I shan’t here offer the name, since this is not about the endorsement of a candidate so much as it is about the endorsement of an idea.

It is, I believe, a compelling idea, freeing us from the constricting distortions of single-issue politics. True, we may find here and there a candidate whose views on Israel and on America’s role in the world are noxious, even though his or her views in other respects are appealing. Happily, that does not appear to be the case this time around.

We are invited to be American patriots, pure and simple, weighing up virtues and flaws and rendering a verdict we believe best for ourselves, our families, our communities, our nation — and then to press for an America more at peace with itself, more generous with others, restored to respect among the nations — an America engaged, diligently and constructively, with a faraway conflict so close to our hearts.


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