It’s Pander Bear Season!

The election campaign is now starting to heat up, and with it, Pander Bear season is moving toward full swing as the pander bears come out to frolick. These furry creatures are beginning the ritual process of pandering to whatever constituency seems to have crucial votes for them, quite apart from whether the panders they offer are good policy or not. This past week’s performance by the pander bears (aka presidential andidates) at the AIPAC meetings in Washington officially kicked off pandering season.

Pander bearing is, of course, a non-partisan activity shared by Democrats and Republicans. In front of the pro-Israel lobby at the AIPAC meetings, John McCain supplicated and pledged his everlasting loyalty to and support of the Israel state; earlier this week, Obama did the same, one-upping McCain’s testimonial by adding that under an Obama administration, he would not allow the division of Jerusalem among the Israelis and Palestinians but would guarantee Israeli total control of the city.

Obama’s pledge illustrates the problems pander bearing can create. The status of Jerusalem has been one of the major stumbling blocks in the peace process between Israel and Palestine: both claim parts of the city as their national capitals, and Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem are a major impediment toward forming an acceptable Palestinian state. What to do about Jerusalem is a major negotiating point in diplomatic efforts the United States has attempted to mediate. The Obama pledge places the United States firmly on the record if he is elected as guaranteeing an outcome on that issue the Palestinians oppose and will never accept. Has any hope for real progress been sacrificed on the pander bear’s altar?

The total embrace of Israel and its positions in the Middle East has always been controversial. Conventional wisdom has been that it was necessary because of the critical nature of Jewish voting blocs in pivotal states in the presidential election. The critical state used to be New York; now it is Florida. But does that explanation hold (or is it sufficient) anymore?

The July/August 2008 issue of Foreign Affairs includes an article by Walter Russell Mead that says it is more than that. He argues that support for Israel is broader than just an appeal to the Jewish vote which does, after all, amount to less than 2 percent of the vote nationally. Rather, he argues, there is an empathy between Israel and a large number of evangelical Christians, who find Israel attractive either because they admire the common experience of Israelis and Americans (both were immigrants who pushed aside indigenous populations), because they admire Israeli courage, or because they see in the establishment of Israel a step toward the Rapture. The result has been a coalition between conservative Protestant evangelicals (like George W. Bush) and neo-conservative Jewish intellectuals, according to Michael Lind in his book Made in Texas.

Whether these arguments should be accepted is a matter of intepretation, but the perceived need to adopt a strongly pro-Israeli position in the Israeli-Palestinian debate clearly is not. One can only wonder how the McCain and Obama pilgrimmages played in Muslim capitals in the Middle East. One can also only speculate whether pitching for the Florida vote also will have the effect of precluding an likelihood of progress in the peace talks under a new U.S. president, a question to be explored in the next posting.

References:

Michael Lind. Made in Texas: George W. Bush and the Southern Takeover of American Politics. New York: Basic Books, 2003.

Walter Russell Mead. “he New Israel and the Old.” Foreign Affairs 87, 4 (July/August 2008), 28-46.

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