Bush gambling with future of Israel and his own party

Nearly 20 years ago, while some of my teenage friends were out doing the kinds of things our grandparents' generation would have thought morally reprehensible, I was busy doing something they might have considered even worse: handing out fliers on behalf of a Republican presidential candidate.

I still remember the sneers, and the occasional smiles, that my nascent political activity evoked as I stood there in New York's Grand Central Station, a kippah perched on my head, trying to persuade rush-hour commuters to cast their ballots for Ronald Reagan.

At the time, the very idea of a "young Jewish Republican" was still something of an oddity, as most Jews continued to lean leftward, carrying on what for many was the equivalent of an inviolable family tradition, namely to vote Democratic come thick or thin.

In the intervening years, of course, that has started to change, as increasing numbers of American Jews have begun to find a comfortable ideological home in the GOP, a place where they can park their political identities while still remaining true to their belief in the need for a safe and secure Israel.

But whatever gains the Republican have made among American Jews in recent years are now in danger of being erased, and the person to blame for this may be none other than George W. Bush himself.

Though Bush received just 19 percent of the Jewish vote in 2000, the aftermath of 9/11 and the president's tough stand against Yasser Arafat enthralled numerous American Jews, leading to what many perceived to be a potentially galvanizing shift among the Children of Abraham away from the Democrats and toward the party of Lincoln.

Indeed, a May 8 Boston Globe article noted that "after a year and a half of strong statements from President Bush about fighting terrorism, along with his equally strong backing of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel, some prominent analysts in both parties say they detect a shift in the Jewish community" toward the Republicans.

But that shift is now at risk as Bush presses Sharon to make concessions inimical to Israel's security.

By calling for implementation of the "road map" leading to the establishment of a Palestinian state, Bush is gambling not only with the future of the land of Israel but also with that of the Republican Party itself. His pursuit of the road map, and his insistence that Israel turn over territory to its enemies, has rightly evoked a growing sense of anger and frustration among many pro-Israel American Jews and Christians.

After all, how can Bush possibly justify coercing Israel to appease Arab terror at the same time that America is using force against it? And why should the Palestinian regime be rewarded with statehood when the Taliban and Saddam Hussein were punished with removal from power? With next year's presidential election campaign just around the corner, Bush is playing with political fire, making it virtually impossible for American Jews who support Israel to fully embrace him and his party.

Consider, for example, the letter sent to the White House last week by the official Israeli branch of Republicans Abroad, in which the group warned the president that pressing ahead with the road map "will only serve to alienate American Jews and the Christian right."

In the letter, the group's leaders noted, "We are aware of increasing numbers of American citizens, both here in Israel and in the United States, who are now considering abandoning the Republican Party as a result of your administration's pursuit of the 'road map.'"

And if you think the Jewish vote doesn't matter anymore in American politics, then think again. According to a 2001 study by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 55 to 60 percent of American Jews consistently vote Democratic, 10 percent are loyal Republicans, while 30 to 35 percent "can be lured by any party depending on its position." Sprinkled among key battleground states in the campaign, that large group in the middle "adds up to a swing vote repre senting up to 2 percent of the electorate in states like Florida and Pennsylvania," according to the study.

In either case, "a shift of that amount would have changed the result in that state and, in all probability, singlehandedly crowned the American president. Put another way, the Jewish swing vote, mobilized behind a particular candidate, would have given him the 2000 election."

Thus the Jewish vote remains key and is sure to play an important role in next year's presidential election campaign.

But the political risk to Bush may be even greater than just the loss of Jewish votes, for his strong-arm tactics against Israel have also started to arouse the ire of a key component of his core constituency, the Christian right. Just last week, Bush received a political warning shot from Christian televangelist Pat Robertson, the founder of the Christian Coalition and a former Republican presidential candidate.

Speaking on the Christian Broadcasting Network May 30, Robertson declared, "The president of the United States is imperiling the nation of Israel. Not only is he going against the clear mandate of the Bible, which is very important, but he's also setting up a situation where Israel will no longer have secure borders."

He even suggested that Bush's insistence on establishing a Palestinian state "will be the beginning of the end of the state of Israel as we know it."

It is imperative that Republicans, Christian and Jew alike, speak up now, loudly and unequivocally, against the road map.

Not just because it endangers the future of Israel, although that should be reason enough, but also because it threatens to undermine the principled stand that the party has taken in the global war on terror, needlessly driving away countless numbers of sympathetic Jewish and Christian voters alike.

There is simply no good moral, political or ideological reason for Bush to be twisting Israel's arm, and he needs to understand that he will pay a price at the ballot box if he does.

Republicans who care about Israel, then, need to rise up and send the president a clear and unambiguous message: If you choose Palestine, then come November 2004, we will not hesitate to choose someone else in your stead.