Why all the focus on Israel?

One of the striking aspects of the third presidential debate was the frequent mention of Israel (34 times). Western Europe and the challenges facing the European Union or Latin America hardly registered. It is as if the Israel issue is a burning one in American politics, or that the American public is dying to see which candidate supports Israel more. Neither is close to the truth.

Even aside from the fact that Americans are not much focused on foreign policy in any case in determining their electoral choices, the Israel issue is often misunderstood. For years now, polls indicate that when Americans are asked if they want the United States to lean toward Israel, toward the Palestinians, or toward neither side, about two-thirds consistently choose neither side. Roughly one-quarter to one-third want the U.S. to take sides, and among those, Israel is favored over the Palestinians by a strong ratio, ranging from 3-to-1 to 5-to-1. But something happened over the past decade in public attitudes toward Israel: America has become far more polarized than ever before.

Historically, there was little difference in the degree of support for Israel among Democrats, independents and Republicans. In recent polls, a huge difference emerged. According to two polls I conducted with the Program for International Policy Attitudes in 2010 and 2011, more than two-thirds of Democrats and independents wanted the United States to take neither side in the conflict, and among those who supported one side or the other, the ratio of support for Israel over the Palestinians was about 2-to-1. Republicans had substantially different views: Nearly half wanted the United States to lean toward Israel, and the ratio of support for Israel over the Palestinians was 46-to-1. In other words, the Israel issue has become far more a Republican issue than a Democratic one, at the level of constituency opinion. Obviously, given the demographic makeup of both major parties, it is more about the evangelical right than about Jewish Americans.

Yet these demographics do not explain why both candidates would go out of their way to compete in avowing support for Israel. In fact, two of the constituencies that were a central target of the final presidential debate, independents and women, were less likely to want the United States to take sides. And it is obvious that Mitt Romney labored to bring up women's issues and projected himself as a candidate for "peace," knowing that the general public — especially independents and women — fear being dragged into another costly war. Is there any risk of alienating them?

No. An Israeli friend with whom I spoke the morning after the debate said he felt "uncomfortable" about the frequent mention of Israel in the debate, knowing that neither candidate truly ranked this issue as high in their priorities as they made it appear. I suspect that many Americans felt the same way, or felt at least puzzled. But here is why it is not likely to make a difference for those who didn't like the focus on Israel: In the polling we have done in the past couple of years, those who want the U.S. to take neither side rank the issue of the Arab-Israeli conflict much lower in their priorities than those who want the U.S. to take Israel's side. Those who don't rank the issue high in their priorities are less likely to vote based on the candidate's position on that issue. They can be uncomfortable — but not uncomfortable enough to make a difference.

In a close election campaign like this one, the focus is much narrower. Certainly, there is a fundraising aspect of American electoral politics, and supporters of Israel tend to be generous contributors in the American electoral process. This is an important element of the clout of organizations like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), whose mission is to consolidate American support for Israel. But electorally it matters, too. Sure, majorities of Jewish Americans will vote Democratic no matter what, as for most, the Israel issue is not the top (or even the second top) issue in their voting behavior. And the evangelical right will mostly vote Republican, no matter Mr. Romney's position is on foreign policy. Still, both constituencies also need to be energized.

But in the end, the principal focus of the campaigns in the final two weeks on this issue is two swing states in which Jewish voters could affect a close election: Florida and Ohio. One Republican advisor, Ari Fleischer, has been quoted to say that with only 25 percent of Jewish votes going to Mr. Romney, Republicans would win Florida, and 30 percent support would mean winning Ohio — and the election. That certainly sounds like an exaggeration. But no democratic strategist wants to test it out.

All of this adds up to a show that is particularly hard to take seriously for many voters, and which is puzzling to audiences around the world, especially in the Middle East. But most have come to expect that there is, in the end, little correlation between what is said in the heat of political campaigns and what presidents in fact do when elected.

Shibley Telhami is Anwar Sadat professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland and Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Saban Center of the Brookings Institution. He is co-author of the forthcoming book, "The Peace Puzzle: America's Quest for Arab-Israeli Peace, 1989-2011." Twitter: @ShibleyTelhami. This article originally appeared on Al-Monitor.

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