APRIL 2004

GEORGE BUSH, with the concurrence of his purported opponent, John Kerry, has effectively outsourced his major foreign policy to Israel, thereby creating a substantially increased risk of further attacks on the U.S. mainland.

Both men, however, appear motivated primarily by domestic political considerations rather than the safety of their country. It has been clear for a long time that the single most effective thing America could do to improve both its relationships and its security in Middle Eastern affairs would be to end its coddling of the right wing Israeli government, pressuring it instead to come to a reasonable accommodation with Palestine.

While much of American 'even handedness' in the Middle East over the years has been a charade, the latest move clearly ends even the illusion of fairness. As the AP reported, "A senior Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Sharon thought that no American president had ever made concessions so important to Israel as Bush did on Wednesday."

Pollster John Zogby told Dana Milbank and Mike Allen of the Washington Post, "This is pretty much the final nail in the coffin of the peace process as far as Arabs are concerned."

Wrote Milbank and Allen: "[Zogby] said his polling indicates the Palestinian cause is among the top three issues for 90 percent of Arabs in all Arab countries he has surveyed. 'It's not even a political issue, it's a bloodstream issue,'" Zogby said.

Milbank and Allen gave an unusually frank description of the domestic politics involved:

Domestically, ~~ the move could enable Bush to chip away a few more of the Jewish voters who have traditionally been loyal to Democrats. And in a tight election, the small minority of Jewish voters -- who tend to have strong turnout levels -- could give Bush an edge in battleground states such as Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

"Given that Jews turn out at an 80 percent turnout rate, if you swing the Jewish vote 10 percent in Ohio, that could give you Ohio," said Nathan Diament, a lobbyist for the Orthodox Jewish movement. Though he believes Bush's motive is principle rather than politics, Diament also notes that the courting of Jewish donors -- hugely important to Democrats -- could aid the Republican Party. . .

House Chief Deputy Majority Whip Eric I. Cantor (Va.), the House's only Jewish Republican, echoed that point. "American Jews see that President Bush gets the fact that Israel is fighting the same fight against terrorism that we are," he said. "The very liberal Jews are not going to be able to put aside their environmental or abortion politics. But for the mainstream Jewish community, Israel is of paramount importance."

Republican officials in Washington said that while they are confident Bush made his decision for sincere policy reasons, they believe the potential impact on the politics of 2004 could be substantial. "This will make it that much harder for John Kerry to win Florida," said a Republican aide on Capitol Hill who refused to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue. Associates said Bush's strategists believe that even small inroads into the Jewish vote could mean the difference between winning and losing Florida, and several Republicans believe the announcement could further inhibit Kerry's fundraising in the Jewish community.

David Winston, a pollster who advises GOP lawmakers, said that the policy change "is clearly going to generate some favorable reaction from people who have not been traditional Republican voters."

"This expands the opportunity for the Republican Party," Winston said.

There is a big price to be paid for viewing "the special relationship" as a political asset. Mark Mawozer, writing in the Financial Times, notes that:

The tidal wave of anti-American feeling has eroded its position as an honest broker over Palestine, while lavish aid has given it scant leverage over Israeli policy. Other administrations, if not this one, have also resented the extent of the Israeli lobby's power over Congress and White House alike.

John Foster Dulles, the late US secretary of state, had underlined the dangers of a situation in which "much of the world - and the Israeli government - believed Israel could in crucial moments control US policy". President Bill Clinton was not pleased when Benjamin Netanyahu, then Israeli prime minister, once referred - with unnecessary candor - to the US as Israel's strategic asset.

Here surely is the partnership's paradox: despite enjoying a global supremacy unprecedented in history, the US finds itself reacting to events, not shaping them. Where the Middle East is concerned, the power of initiative lies not in Washington but in Jerusalem.

Can any great power acquiesce indefinitely to such a self-limiting posture? President George Washington had warned Americans in his Farewell Address that "a passionate attachment of one nation for another produces a variety of evils". He was referring to their fondness for the French. One wonders if the current US attachment to Israel will ever go the same way.

The Jewish electorate in America has changed dramatically in the past decades. For much of the 20th century, Jewish activism, along with mid-western populism, were major sources of the country's progressive ideas. But with the rise of Israel as an symbol and the upward mobility of succeeding generations, the Jewish electorate became increasingly conservative, much of it now a part of a SUV liberal right that is no longer much interested in populist politics.

While Muslims are an increasingly important voting bloc, they are poorer, less well organized, and less concentrated than the Jewish vote and thus less appealing to politicians.

What is amazing about all this is that under discussion is a policy that could easily lead to another disaster of the scale of 9/11. It is hard to find a parallel for such a negligently reckless foreign policy in recent American history.

While politicians have repeatedly catered to ethnic groups with a foreign agenda, it is unusual for such behavior to cost so much in money, goodwill, and national security.

For example, some such causes - such as Northern Ireland and South Africa - have offered positive outcomes. Some - as with efforts to please the Cuban right - have been negative but not causing any major damage.

Israel is, however, in a lonely class with Taiwan, both with a long history of directly interfering in American politics against the larger interest of, and at significant risk to, our country.

Beyond these two examples, you have to go back to New York City during the rise of Mussolini to find something somewhat comparable. Mussolini not only got significant support from the Italian-American right but in 'Friendly Fascism,' Bertram Gross notes that Mussolini also won "the friendship, support or qualified approval" of the American ambassador, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Thomas Lamont, many newspapers and magazine publishers, the majority of business journals, and quite a sprinkling of liberals, including some associated with both the Nation and The New Republic.

This combination of ethnic and elite support has a familiar ring today and raises some of the same issues.

Writing a review for the history site, H-Net, Stanislao G. Pugliese notes that "[Philip] Cannistraro shows how the fascist government made strident efforts to recruit both leading prominenti such as Generoso Pope (publisher of Il Progresso and other Italian-language newspapers) as well as the masses. Mussolini's representatives in America shrewdly played on the anxious (and new-found) nationalism of the Italian Americans. Fascist rhetoric appealed to Italian Americans, many of whom were suffering from overt discrimination; harking back to the glories of ancient Rome, Italo Balbo's flying squadron, and the Duce's declaration of an 'African Empire' were powerful ingredients in an ideology of compensation."

True, there was an Italian-American left far more vigorous than today's Jewish counterpart. It would help elect the likes of Fiorello La Guardia and one of the most progressive representatives ever to sit in Congress, Vito Marcantonio. But it also ran into plenty of trouble, including major clashes between black shirts and anti-fascists and
the assassination of its major newspaper editor, Carlo Tresca, by members of the pro-Mussolini Mafia.

The Mafia would eventually join the American cause but with the questionable payoff that the Americans - because of its utility in fighting European communists - helped it regain control of Sicily after the war and looked the other way as it strengthened its position in the U.S.. The bargain curses us to this day.

In 1979 the Fifth Estate reported: "Upon his arrival in Italy, [Carlo] Gambino gave Mussolini a gift of $100,000 and asked if there was any favor he could do for the dictator. The Duce replied that there was an anarchist in New York City who caused much trouble for Italy by his "lies." Mussolini and Gambino both agreed that it would be best if the source of the problem was eliminated. Galante was a capo in the NYC Gambino family who functioned as an enforcer.

"In Naples, one of [Lucky] Luciano's lieutenants, Vito Genovese, was appointed to a position of interpreter-liaison officer in American army headquarters and quickly became one of AMGOT's most trusted employees. It was a remarkable turnabout; less than a year before, Genovese had arranged the murder of Carlo Tresca, editor of an anti-Fascist Italian-language newspaper in New York, to please the Mussolini government."

In the end, even Generoso Pope later joined in supporting Franklin Roosevelt but to this day the city's Italian American politics is marked by divisions symbolized by Mario Cuomo and Geraldine Ferrero on one side and Alphonse D'Amato and Rudolph Guiliani on the other.

Today, but without a healthy left, Jewish-American politics presents some of the same dangers that Italian-American politics did in the 1920s and 30s: a misbegotten conversion of love of one's roots into loyalty to a government that is a betrayal of much of what those roots are meant to mean.

And, as a result, all Americans, regardless of their roots, are placed in danger. - SAM SMITH