The Other Coming Out Party

On Monday, the first legal gay marriages took place in Massachusetts.  Tuesday was another 'coming out' day — for Jewish Republicans.  I attended the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, as I have for the last 14 years.  Israeli Prime Ministers  Yitzhak Rabin, Ariel Sharon, Shimon Peres, and Bibi Netanyahu, have all been enthusiastically received by the AIPAC audience in years past. But the raucous, chanting reception for President Bush on Tuesday morning topped them all.

From the moment the crowd of well over 4,000 filled the ballroom, the excitement was palpable. As the time for the President's appearance approached, the crowd started clapping, and the first chants of 'four more years' were heard.  Then Bush appeared with Hail to the Chief playing through the loudspeakers. The hall erupted.  And the enthusiasm continued for the next 40 minutes as Bush spoke, through 24 standing ovations, punctuated by more and louder cries of four more years.

The President was clearly energized by the crowd: this could have been the best hour he has had politically in the last few weeks. Bush spoke about Israel and its desire for peace and security, and the need for the Palestinians to get serious about engaging in a real peace process, rather than terrorism, to accomplish their goals. But most of the President's talk focused on Iraq —— on the reasons we went into Iraq, and the reasons we need to stay and finish our mission.

Clearly, the President had every reason to believe he would be well received by the AIPAC attendees.  Prime Minister Sharon has called Bush the best friend Israel has ever had in the White House. With few exceptions, American Presidents, as well as the Congress, have always in a bipartisan fashion supported Israel —— its existence, its security needs, and its cause. But it is a lot easier for an American President to back an Israeli Prime Minister who is left of center (Rabin, Peres, Barak), whom the rest of the world hates a little less, since he offers concessions to the Palestinians, than it is to back a right of center Israeli leader (Shamir, Netanyahu, and now Sharon), who is less willing to make concessions without tangible responses by the Arab side. 

Bush's father had very cold relations with Yitzhak Shamir, and President Clinton stiffed Bibi Netanyahu when he was Prime Minister from 1996—1999. On the other hand, the elder Bush got along fine with Rabin, as did Clinton with Rabin, Peres and Barak. But Bush, despite receiving only 19% of the Jewish vote in the 2000 election, has been a steadfast supporter of Sharon, an embattled Israeli leader, despised in much of the world. It is a lot gutsier, and a truer sign of friendship to back an Israeli leader who has little international support, than one who has much appeal in the rest of the world. The U.S.— Israel partnership during the Bush years has been deep. While laying out the goal of a responsible Palestinian entity emerging into a state at some time (the carrot), Bush has also applied the stick, setting the standard for such a state (including ending terrorism, and incitement, creating responsible transparent leadership, ending corruption). These are  standards that the Palestinians are probably further from today, than they have ever been.

Bush has also spoken the truth about some of the core issues in dispute between Israel and the Palestinians: that there can be no right of return to Israel for refugees from a war started by the Arabs 56 years back, and for their millions of descendants, many still living in refugee camps because of the refusal of the P.A. or Arab governments to resettle them, and let them move on with their lives. Bush also stated last month that consistent with U.N. Resolution 242, which followed the Six Day War, border adjustments from the 1949 armistice lines separating the two sides would undoubtedly have to occur.  The Bush doctrine on these issues recognizes a simple truth, there is a price to pay for refusing to make peace, and instead choosing to go to war, and then losing. The Palestinians will not get tomorrow what they rejected a half century back, when they decided it was more important to destroy Israel than to start their own state. That has been the Palestinian political reality for the entire history of this conflict: killing Jews takes precedence over improving Palestinian lives.

Diplomats have for years tread lightly on these issues, fearful of offending Arab tyrants who control much of the world's oil, or of offending Muslim minorities in their own countries. But Bush has spoken the truth —— that the international community's empty pieties about this conflict are like an emperor without clothes. For this, and for his Administration's steadfast support of Israel's fight against terrorism, and for our defense of Israel in the UN, and at the Durban 'human rights' hate—fest, and at the sham trial on Israel's security fence at the International Court of 'Justice,' the AIPAC crowd showed its appreciation for the President.

But there was something more at stake that also explained the emotional cheers for the President. For almost a hundred years, as Jews have become a sizable voting bloc in America, Jews have remained reliable Democratic Party members, contributors and voters. There have been few exceptions to this voting pattern. In 1980, Jews largely abandoned Jimmy Carter (who has shown his contempt for Israel in regular fashion since then), and gave Ronald Reagan almost as many votes as they did Carter (a 6% plurality for Carter).  In some state and municipal elections in New York, California, and elsewhere, Jews have voted for Republican candidates (Giuliani, Bloomberg, Riordan, Pataki). But in most elections, Jews have given Democratic candidates for President at least a 2 to 1 victory. In 2000, with the very popular (and decent) Joe Lieberman as the VP candidate, Gore won about 80% of the Jewish vote against Bush. So clearly, Bush did not owe his election to Jewish votes.

There has been lots of speculation on how well Bush will do this year among Jewish voters. AIPAC members are the segment of the Jewish constituency who are most focused on foreign policy, and in particular on the Middle East and protecting Israel. Among the vanguard at the Policy Conference, Bush supporters were clearly in a big majority, and even the Democrats gave a warm welcome to Bush.  For the first time, people did not have to say they were voting Republican, or for Bush, and look around to see who might be listening. This time, the liberals and the Kerry supporters were the ones who had to defend their preference. The full—throatedness of the greeting for Bush on Tuesday morning therefore also reflected a roar for casting off the political shackles that have limited Jewish options for decade after decade. Change on this front is slowest among the older Jewish voters. But among the younger Jews at AIPAC and the college students, the support for Bush was overwhelming.

For a generation, things were relatively quiet for Israel, and for many Jews, Israel faded as an issue. Now, Israel is existentially threatened by Iranian nuclear weapons, and it is internationally isolated, suffering great human losses at the hands of Palestinian terrorists.

Bush has seen the common link between America, under attack after 9/11, and Israel's struggle. America's enemies also hate Israel, and they refer to us in the same breath. The elites who hate America also hate Israel. There is a reason why the two nations' destinies are bound together: it is because we are both on the right side of the current struggle against Islamic fascism and jihadist radicals.

Kofi Annan has asked about Israel: could all the world, except America, be wrong? Yes it  can. Bush and America have stood alone from the pack and supported the embattled state —— the sole democracy in a region of despots and vicious killers, and rampant religious hate. On Tuesday, AIPAC's Jews showed their appreciation. At every such conference, the attendees go home fired—up, and ready to spread the word.  This year, it will be easy to make the case for Bush.

Jews are breaking off the political plantation on which they have resided for decades, automatically sending their votes and money to Democrats. Beginning with Newt Gingrich in 1994, Republicans in Congress have become strong and vocal supporters of Israel.  Today, Christian evangelical groups are among Israel's most reliable supporters in this country. At the AIPAC Conference, Tom Delay and Gary Bauer were treated as visiting royalty.

Israel needs bipartisan support. Two Democrats, Congressman Steny Hoyer and Senator Joseph Lieberman, provided forceful support for Israel in their speeches to the Conference. They know that the anti—Israel attitudes of some in their party, the left fringe, are hurting their chances with Jewish voters.  But it is good for American Jewish voters to be in play, and to have two choices. Voting needn't be robotic. AIPAC has achieved its great success by making Israel a bipartisan cause in the Congress. But it is only lately that Jews have become more open to voting for and supporting Republican candidates. This election, I believe, will mark a transformation for the community politically. On Tuesday morning, as the President arrived in the hall, it was obvious how far the conversion process has already come.