America’s mighty pro-Israel lobby may be less durable than it looks.

Barack Obama was visiting London at the time. Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian prime minister, was in a Texas hospital with heart trouble. These gentlemen should count themselves lucky they were not there to hear Binyamin (“Bibi”) Netanyahu speak to the American Congress on the morning of May 24th. Watching might not have helped their blood pressure. Days after his quarrel over the 1967 borders with Mr Obama, Israel’s prime minister turned in a bravura performance in the absent president’s backyard, earning a score of standing ovations and making it clear that although presidents come and go, Israel enjoys the support of Republicans and Democrats alike on Capitol Hill.

What explains this enduring support? The “lobby”, for a start. This week, as more than 10,000 supporters flooded Washington for the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the lobby strutted its stuff. Mr Obama spoke on the first day of the meeting, before flying off to Europe. On the second day, 67 senators and 286 members of the House joined the 10,000 at the gala dinner—perhaps the biggest kosher nosh in history. On the third, after Mr Netanyahu’s triumph on the House floor, delegates ascended the Hill to conduct more than 500 separate lobbying meetings. Behold, the congressman that keepeth an eye on his Jewish vote shall neither slumber nor sleep.

That Jews count in American politics is not in doubt. They are conscientious voters and a formidable source of campaign financing. Hence the relish with which Republicans pounced on evidence of a rift between Mr Obama and Israel over the 1967 borders. Although the disagreement (insofar as it was not synthetic) was about emphasis rather than substance, Eric Cantor, the (Jewish) leader of the Republican majority in the House, was “very concerned”. Mitt Romney, supposedly leading the race to become the Republican presidential nominee in 2012, proclaimed that Mr Obama had “thrown Israel under the bus”.

So much for politics stopping at the water’s edge. The Republicans would dearly love to turn American policy on Israel into a wedge issue for 2012. But this may well be impossible. For a start, Mr Obama, who at AIPAC promised his “ironclad” support for Israel’s security, has already put America’s money where his mouth is. He has provided what Israel admits to have been unprecedented co-operation on defence, and clamped harsh sanctions on Iran. And even if he could somehow be portrayed as wildly hostile to Israel, the Democrats on the Hill cannot be. Smelling danger, many joined the Republican scolding of the president. Harry Reid, the Democrats’ leader in the Senate, did not explicitly repudiate Mr Obama’s reference to the 1967 borders, but made his displeasure plain. “A fair beginning to good-faith talks means that Israel cannot be asked to agree to confines that would compromise its own security,” he said. Read more…

As published in www.economist.com on May 26, 2011 (from the print edition, United States).


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