OU to Netanyahu: Don't meet GOP hopefuls on DC trip
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu should not meet with Republican presidential candidates during his upcoming trip to Washington so as not to be perceived as taking sides in the campaign, Nathan Diament, director of public policy for the Orthodox Union (OU), said this week.
Netanyahu will be addressing the annual AIPAC policy conference in Washington a week from Monday, the same day Republican hopeful Newt Gingrich is scheduled to address the gathering.
A source in the Prime Minister’s Office said that while no final decision had been made on whether Netanyahu would meet the Republican presidential candidates, it was not likely he would meet with one if could not meet with all four – Gingrich, Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul – which was an unlikely occurrence.
In past election years, the source said, Israel’s prime minister had generally met only with presidential candidates after their party’s convention.
Diament, in Israel for last week’s annual meeting of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said that during the US campaign, Israeli leaders needed to be careful not to play into partisan politics.
While Israel has been an issue in the Republican campaign, Diament said this was because the candidates had made it one, not Israel.
According to Diament, the Republican candidates at this stage of the campaign want to appeal to Republican primary voters and financial contributors, and there is a “significant segment in both categories who feel passionately about Israel.”
He referred not only to Jews, but also to Evangelical Christians.
Also, Diament added, each candidate was trying to portray himself already as the nominee, and interested in highlighting the contrasts with US President Barack Obama on a wide variety of issues – including foreign policy and Israel.
“But for voters who care passionately about the issue – Christian, Jewish or otherwise – it is appropriate for Israel to be part of the debate,” he said.
Asked if he was concerned for Israel if Obama were to win a second term and not have to face the electorate again, Diament answered: “Yes and no.”
No, he said, because “no president has a totally blank check – we have checks and balances.” He acknowledged that while the president has a great deal of latitude on foreign policy, “Congress is a check, and the American public is a check.”
He also said he felt Obama learned a great deal during his first term about the issues and the region.
Referring to Obama’s assumption at the beginning of his term that if he could get Israel to freeze settlement construction, he could then get the Arab states to put some “gestures” toward Israel on the table, Diament said “he and his administration learned the hard way that things are a lot more complicated. I don’t think those lessons have disappeared.”
Diament said he was a bit concerned about a second term because the president does believe that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is in the best interests of both the US and Israel, and would like to make progress in that direction. As to why that should worry him, Diament said, “Because they may want to pursue it in a way that the Israeli government, for its reasons, does not want to – and that could lead to difficulty.”
Diament said the OU does not endorse candidates in elections, and would lose its tax-exempt status if it did so. However, he did acknowledge that among the OU’s constituent synagogues, the Republicans fared much better than they did among the larger US Jewish community.
In the 2008 presidential election, for instance, he said that while Obama beat John McCain by about a 3-1 margin among Jewish voters, in districts with high percentages of Orthodox Jewish voters, McCain outpolled Obama by the same 3-1 margin.
Diament explained the difference by saying that for the Orthodox Jewish community, Israel was a much higher priority issue than for other American Jews, for whom domestic issues loom more important in deciding for whom to vote.
In polls the American Jewish Committee takes on Jewish opinion, Diament noted, one question always asked is the degree to which the respondents feel close to Israel.
“The numbers of Orthodox who feel very close to Israel is much higher,” he said, maintaining that the issue is more salient for them, and that they put it at the top of their list when voting.
Plus, Diament added, Orthodox Jews are more conservative on social values questions – such as abortion and church-state issues – than many of their American coreligionists.