Obama's Israel policy could mean the end of his presidency

A leading Washington right-winger says the US electorate may put a stronger ally into the White House next year

By Jenni Frazer, December 8, 2011
Frum highlights a poll which says a majority of US voters regard Israel as important

Frum highlights a poll which says a majority of US voters regard Israel as important

If you cut David Frum, there is every possibility his blood would run Republican Party blue. President George W Bush's one-time speechwriter, credited with coining the phrase "the axis of evil" to refer to terrorist groups and extremist governments, Frum is the Republicans' Republican, exhorting and hectoring the Grand Old Party in the belief that Barack Obama's presidency can be ousted next year.

Since leaving the White House, the Toronto-born Frum, who is 51, has made his living mainly as a political commentator, most recently from the online website FrumForum.com, where he acts as a sort of lightning conductor for voices from the right. He is also a member of the board of directors of the Republican Jewish Coalition.

But even a man apparently so convinced of his own correctness occasionally hesitates. In London last week to speak to the annual dinner of the Anglo-Israel Association, Frum admitted that he is having second and third thoughts about the current crop of front-runners vying for the Republican presidential candidacy.

"I am worried about the state of the party," he confesses. His problem is that he wants "an electable and effective Republican alternative" to Obama and so far only Mitt Romney, the former Governor of Massachusetts, fits the bill in his view. Republican support, says Frum, has dropped over the summer months by seven points in the US polls; in areas where the Tea Party, the new right-wing political phenomenon espoused by Sarah Palin, is strongest, support has dropped even faster. Frum is careful not to attack the Tea Party too strongly - recognising, perhaps, that one day they may become the new political masters - but he is clearly uneasy about their effect on mainstream Republican politics.

A viable candidate is doubly important because President Obama is vulnerable, and his "greatest vulnerability is his foreign policy failure". He acknowledges that in some areas of foreign policy, Obama has done well - he pulled the troops out of Afghanistan and is doing so from Iraq, and Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and Colonel Gaddafi all fell on the president's watch.

But speaking to the Anglo-Israel Association, Frum reported that the Hill newspaper has written of "a warning sign for the president" on Israel. "Among likely American voters, 40 per cent say that President Obama is not supportive enough of Israel. And this is not some idle opinion: a quarter of voters say Israel is very important to the way they vote, a majority of voters say Israel is very or somewhat important to the way they vote."

Frum is dismissive of the suggestion of an "Israel lobby" driving opinion on Capitol Hill. "We have lobbies on issues such as fuel subsidies or solar energy or oil," he says. If there is a Israel lobby, he adds, "it is successful for exactly the same reason that Mothers Against Drunk Driving is successful: because Americans approve of and admire motherhood, and dislike and disapprove of driving drunk."

I think the president certainly has an animus against Prime Minister Netanyahu

But in the "huge Middle-East industry" in America, he says, there is a false belief that the Israel-Palestine situation "is in some way central to the problems of the region. That if a Palestinian state were created, all would be well, that it is Israeli politicians who are blocking something which is in their own best interests". Americans, says Frum, "don't think, how annoying that Israel won't submit to the demands of some international peace negotiator. They think, if I were an Israeli voter, I would not submit to those demands myself."

The advent of the Arab Spring has not made a major difference to the truths of the situation, he believes. "In 2011, if you look at the major problems of the Arab world, and you say, what would creating a Palestinian state, assuming such a thing were possible, do to solve those problems? Nothing. It was just as true in 2009 as it is today, that half the population of Egypt lives on $2 a day or less. These regimes are failing to provide opportunities for an enormous population of young urban males. These facts were known before the Arab Spring.

He continues: "I don't think the president began with an animus against Israel… I think he certainly has an animus against Prime Minister Netanyahu. I think he considers himself as a friend of Israel. But he is a friend who happens to know better about Israel's interests than its prime minister, than its cabinet, than its people. He's right, and they're wrong. But not because he wishes them ill. The president's claim is that Israel is doing something against the interests of Israel, and that he is going to save Israel from itself."

It would be "more logical," Frum suggests, if Obama were to say that it was in the interests of the United States for there to be a Palestinian state, and that he was going to pressure Israel accordingly.

"But Americans don't like the idea of a Palestinian state. I think that President Obama comes from inside this complex of views inside the Middle-East peace process industry... that's where he started in his first two and a half years. But he has received some jolts: the Arab Spring, the worsening relations with Iran, have made it clear that a lot of the assumption of this view are not true. And, finally, the Palestinians' indifference to the president's efforts. That must be the most radicalising thing for him: that he said, I'm going to lean on Netanyahu to get concessions for the Palestinians, and that will cause the Palestinians to respond by joining the peace process and making significant concessions of their own. What he discovered was, that you can press Netanyahu all you want, and it yields nothing. The Palestinians do not reciprocate, and the peace process is as dead as ever."

Nevertheless, Frum asserts, Israel is not central to Obama's re-election. It is, as Bill Clinton so famously expressed it, "the economy, stupid," now surely more than even in Clinton's day. "But given that Obama's going to be facing a tough economy, and emphasising foreign policy as one of his successes, it is going to matter that in an area of foreign policy to which Americans pay a lot of attention, things are not good."

This is not to say that Frum characterises the core relationship between America and Israel as bad. On the contrary, it is a relationship, he says, "deeper than any president or prime minister. And Israel brings a lot to the table. Its greatest threats are not just to Israel… Iran is not just a threat to Israel. I would argue that despite the exterminationist talk by Iran, Israel is not even their first target. That's the Gulf. They want to be the dominant power there. A nuclear bomb would help them do that. Obama thought it was possible to engage the Iranians, but the regime has remained as obdurate and as dangerous as ever."

Oddly for such a hawk, Frum does not believe that there will be military action against Iran. Rather he predicts computer warfare and what he calls "irregular actions" and a tightening of sanctions against Tehran. Nevertheless, Mitt Romney pledges that if he becomes president, he will do "whatever it takes" for Iran not to have a nuclear bomb, and does not rule out military action. Obama, says Frum, will do "whatever it takes, up to, but not including, military action".

Casting an informed outsider's eye over attitudes to Israel in Britain, Frum seems appalled by the UK media, which he thinks belie the healthy working relationship between the two countries. There is an environment, he notes, which hosts "fabrications" against Israel.

"The Jenin story was made in Britain, the so-called Gaza massacres were made in Britain. Because of the extraordinary reach of Britain's media - the BBC, the Guardian - when an invention takes form, it's very damaging. For certain segments of British life, they feel they can't be patriotic and nationalistic any more about their own country. So they are looking for other places to be patriotic and nationalistic about. From Lord Byron on, there's been a tendency to find British people in the middle of somebody else's nationalism. There are people who adopt the Palestinian cause as a substitute for the nationalism that their grandparents felt and that they can't express. It fills a missing place. People in the thrall of this kind of thing are blind. They think they are not antisemites because they didn't start as antisemites. The fact that you found a modern way into antisemitism doesn't make you any less antisemitic - just a more up-to-date version."

Last updated: 11:46am, December 8 2011