In 2005, when he was the deputy director general for media and public affairs in Israel's foreign ministry, Gideon Meir came to America with an ambitious mission, one that some might call impossible: He wanted to rebrand Israel by scaling down its visibility as a news item.
Explaining his intention, Meir, now the ambassador to Italy, shared a story of his days in Washington in the late 1970s at an event in an embassy of a European country: "The hostess told me, 'Look at us, our prime minister was here last week for a state visit, and all he got is a three-line item in one of the pages inside the paper. But you, whenever you have someone coming, you get a front-page headline.' You know what I told her? Take the headline and give me the three lines."
Three years later, his goal seems as distant as ever. Loving Israel, and making it known time and again, is still a litmus test for any American politician. Barely can a presidential debate go by without the mentioning of this tiny country in a distant region. Last week in the vice-presidential debate, Israel's name was mentioned 17 times. China was mentioned twice, Europe just once. Russia didn't come up at all. Nor Britain, France, or Germany. The only two countries to get more attention were Iraq and Afghanistan—the countries in which U.S. forces are fighting wars.
And the Biden-Palin debate was not the exception but the rule. A week earlier, in the first McCain-Obama debate, Israel was mentioned seven times, fewer than Russia but still more than China or Japan or any country in Europe, Latin America, or Africa. In the second presidential debate, on Tuesday, Israel was on the table again. "Would you commit U.S. troops to defend Israel if Iran attacks it?" they were asked. In the first two televised debates of the primary season, one could see the same trend: Republican candidates mentioned Israel 18 times, as compared with only one mention for Russia and three for China. Democrats, more modestly, mentioned Israel only three times—still more than Great Britain, Egypt, Australia, South Africa, Brazil, or Canada and almost the same as those of neighboring Mexico.
And, of course, they all love Israel, support it, and commit themselves to protecting it. Tiny Israel is one of a handful of countries to which both McCain and Obama have traveled in the very busy months preceding the election. And the problem doesn't stop with the candidates. Israelis, while some of them understand the danger of being constantly front and center, can also hardly fight the temptation of basking in this barrage of positive, comforting attention. When Israel's Ehud Olmert came for his first U.S. visit as prime minister, he bragged to Jewish legislators: President Bush sat with the president of China for just one hour, he said, but with me he sat for six full hours.
"Israel's security is sacrosanct," Obama has repeatedly explained. McCain and now Palin have promised to prevent "another Holocaust"—a presumed possibility in the case that Iran achieves its goal of acquiring nuclear weapons. The candidates do it for political reasons: getting the Jewish vote and the votes of other pro-Israel groups. (Surveys asking Americans to identify favorable countries list Israel at the top, along with countries like England, Canada, and Japan.) They do it as a way of explaining their policies in the most contentious of regions, the Middle East. They do it because they are constantly asked about it by an American media that is sometimes obsessed with all things Israel.
But if they really care for Israel, they should at least try to resist the temptation. The constant mentions, the high visibility in every election cycle, the overwhelming attention—all do little to serve Israel's interest. They create the impression that Israel's problems, and especially the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, should be the highest priority for an American administration. They make Americans think that important and costly governmental actions, like the war in Iraq, were done for the sake of Israel, thus turning Israel into a nuisance rather than an asset. They mislead voters to think that dilemmas facing the next president—Iran is the most notorious example—would disappear had it not been for Israel.
But reality is different.
Resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as important as it might be to Israelis and Palestinians, will not be a strategic life-changing event for the United States. Advisers to both McCain and Obama have recognized that, in a conference not long ago, as McCain adviser Max Boot has reported: "I said that negotiating an Israeli-Palestinian accord could not be the top priority for the next administration given all the other crises we face, Richard Danzig, an adviser to Barack Obama, said, 'I think we see this rather similarly.' " Contrary to what some Americans might think, Boot rightly explained that "if the Israeli-Palestinian dispute were resolved, it would not solve all the problems of the Middle East."
The fact that supporters of the Iraq war were also known to be supporters of Israel does not mean that Israel had anything to do with the launching of this war. This distorted theory of events was most famously detailed in The Israel Lobby, a book by professors Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer—and I suspect some American voters on the left still believe it. In fact, Israel barely played a role in the decisions leading to the Iraq war. As Yossi Alpher reported a year and a half ago, Israel's Ariel Sharon even warned President Bush against the war: "Publicly, Sharon played the silent ally. … Sharon nevertheless advised Bush not to occupy Iraq."
But Iran is where the most serious damage was done by the repeated mentioning, by both campaigns, of Israel as the country threatened by Iran's nuclear program. Iran poses a challenge to the United States and its interests in the Middle East, it is a threat to governments and leaders in the Arab world, it is endangering vital energy resources, and it supports terror not just against Israel.
And again, the candidates recognize all these facts but keep their focus on Israel. "What is your reading" of the threat Iran poses "to the security of the United States?" McCain was asked at the first debate. His response started in this fashion: "If Iran acquires nuclear weapons, it is an existential threat to the state of Israel." Obama's response was no better: A nuclear Iran "would be a game changer. Not only would it threaten Israel, a country that is our stalwart ally ..."
Yes, both McCain and Obama also mentioned some of the other reasons for which a nuclear Iran will be more than just a nuisance, but they both started with Israel. Can one blame an American living under the false impression that Israel is the main, perhaps only reason for which to oppose Iranian expansionism?
One really can't. The blame for creating such impression lies with the overeager candidates, their advisers, and, to some extent, attention-seeking Israelis who all behave like the guy in this long-forgotten Queen song that "never read the signs/ Too much love will kill you."