Blind US Zionism will kill Israel

By Jonathan Freedland, August 28, 2008

Both Joe Biden and McCain's likely running-mate are staunch supporters of Israel. But what it really needs is tough love.

It's a long shot, but by the time you read this, it is conceivable that history will have repeated itself - and that Joe Lieberman, the only Orthodox Jewish member of the US Senate, will, once again, be nominated for the vice-presidency of the United States. If that happens, history will have been made as well as repeated, because, were John McCain to pick Lieberman, the latter would become the only man ever to have served on the national ticket of both of America's main parties.

I'm writing this in Denver, where I've spent the week among the tens of thousands of Democrats gathered to launch, in earnest, their campaign to retake the White House. These activists couldn't get enough of Al Gore, now revered as a Nobel Prize-winning visionary. But his Jewish running mate from 2000 - Lieberman - was persona non grata. And that's putting it gently. "Hate figure" might be more accurate.

That's because Lieberman has abandoned his party to back McCain, even speaking at next week's Republican convention in Minnesota. And no one likes a turncoat.

Even if it doesn't happen, the surge in speculation about a McCain-Lieberman ticket was, in part, a knock-on effect of the choice Barack Obama made for his own deputy - and the impact that decision might have on America's Jews.

When Obama named Joe Biden as his would-be vice president last weekend, political sages immediately noted the Delaware senator's ability to reach key groups of voters that have proved beyond Obama's reach: low-income white men, Irish-Catholics, "seniors". But there's one group that was barely mentioned: Jews.
Biden is the current chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee - with an impeccable record as a friend of Israel. Last year he told an interviewer: "I am a Zionist. You don't have to be a Jew to be a Zionist," adding that Israel was "the single greatest strength America has in the Middle East". Just to put a cherry on top, he went on to reveal that his son has married a Jewish woman and that he had taken part in a Seder at the home of his machatonim (not sure he used that exact word).

Now, it's no secret that some Jews have had their doubts about Obama, recycling the internet fictions that he is a "secret Muslim" and suchlike. Even the cool-headed Daniel Finkelstein fretted about Obama in this space just last week, on the grounds that the Democratic nominee sometimes talks on the phone to George Clooney.

The presence of a self-declared Zionist like Biden on the ticket should soothe some of those anxieties. What's more, it is older Jews who tend to be most worried about Obama, and the 65-year-old Biden is known to be particularly well-regarded by senior citizens.

In other words, Biden might be just the man to reach, say, the elderly Jewish voters of south Florida. Since Florida is a knife-edge state, winning over that group could make all the difference - in a state that, as the entire world knows after 2000, can decide the presidency.

None of this calculus would have been lost on the McCain camp. Republican strategists would have at least considered the argument that the only man who could trump Biden's appeal among Florida Jews would be Joe Lieberman. Hence this week's increased talk of a McCain-Lieberman ticket.

This is all good fun for political anoraks like me. But it conceals a less than impressive fact about our fellow Jews in the United States. Most policymakers in America, and even in Israel, now acknowledge that the best hope for Israel's own survival is a two-state solution. There is no other way for Israel to remain a Jewish, democratic state. That is the policy of George W Bush and of Israel's outgoing prime minister, Ehud Olmert.

What other policymakers, including Israelis, concede in private is that, thanks to the paralysed state of Israeli politics, the country may find it hard to act without external pressure - if only as an alibi for any peacemaking Israeli government.

As Amos Oz famously put it, both the Israeli and Palestinian patients know they need surgery - the trouble is, their surgeons are cowards. They need to be pushed towards an accord - and the only player powerful enough to do that pushing is an American president.

So if Israel needs some tough love from Washington - for the sake of its own survival - why do American Jews insist on politicians who promise no such thing, who offer only the blindest, blandest loyalty? How much better it would be if American Jews demanded smart support for Israel instead, support for the action that has to be taken if the Jewish state is to have any long-term future.

So I'm happy that Joe Biden might help Obama win more Jewish support - I just wish he didn't have to.

Last updated: 7:00pm, August 28 2008