Sarah Palin is the latest Republican politician to visit Israel after a string of possible Presidential hopefuls to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in the past few months.
Why is establishing your credentials in Tel Aviv before running for US president as vital as stumping in New Hampshire?
The pilgrimage of presidential hopefuls often begins with the Western Wall and includes a photo op with Binyamin Netanyahu. They all appear to be first stops ahead of a possible run for the US top spot.
“In some ways I think of Israel as the new Iowa,” explained Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace. “It’s sort of the indicator that you’re running for President is a trip to Israel.”
But why go all the way to Tel Aviv in search of the Holy Grail?
“It’s a rite of passage, all presidential candidates pass through Israel,” said author and activist Norman Finkelstein. “Mostly it’s about money”
Jewish and Pro-Israel money accounts for between one-quarter and one-third of all donations to the major political parties, according to estimates. Some say higher. One former congresswoman put it this way.
“They bought the executive branch,” said to Cynthia McKinney, also a former Presidential candidate. “They bought the legislative branch.”
Pro-Israel federal campaign contributions amounted to more than $11.7 million dollars in 2010, leaving other foreign and defense policy contributions, along with gun rights, the environment, and human rights donations, in the dust.
And this power of the purse has built a reputation in Washington for the most powerful Pro-Israel political group in the country: AIPAC
“I think what AIPAC has done best has impressed upon candidates and elected officials that they can punish people who vote the wrong way and reward people who vote the right way,” said Vilkomerson. “And when I say right way I mean AIPAC way.”
Rumblings of this could be heard at the height of tensions between the White House and Israel over the freezing of settlements last spring, in the way some members talked about President’s Obama’s fate.
“I think he may very well be a one-term President,” asserted a member and the AIPAC annual conference.
Now, in the last few months we’ve seen a parade of GOP politicians through the holy land, ostensibly to boost their foreign policy credentials. They include Mitt Romney, Rudy Guiliani, Mike Huckabee, Haley Barbour, and most recently of course Palin, who is known for her “uncompromising support for the state of Israel,” according to an Israeli news report.
But she’s known in the US when it comes to international aptitude, by her infamous lack of it.
And if candidates like Palin are hoping to gain insight into the Middle East, it doesn’t take a political analyst to see a major part of the picture is missing.
“Someone asked Sarah Palin what she thought about the West Bank she said you know I use Wells Fargo,” joked comedian Jay Leno on The Tonight Show.
But critics argue an accurate view of the issues is just not really the point.
“She just goes does a little tourism comes back and she’s ticked that box on her presidential finance raising,” said Finkelstein.
And a broader perspective might not matter much to the future of US foreign policy anyway.
“The people of the US don’t have true representation when it comes to their values versus the Pro Israel lobby,” said Mc Kinney.
For potential Presidents on the surface looking to boost their foreign policy street-cred, all of this helps explain why they may bypass other countries. For example Russia, where the US is trying to reset relations, or the UK, the other half in the US’s “special relationship,” China with its rise in the world and stake in US bonds, or Saudi Arabia where Washington is selling $60 billion in arms to counter Iran. They head straight for the stump in Israel.
Alexander Cockburn, the editor of Counter Punch, said American politics are controlled by a mix of factual groups; the Israeli lobby is just one – a very strong one.
“Every political candidate who aspires to be President of the United States, aspires to be a member the the US Congress, has to deal with the Israeli lobby,” he explained.
The Pro-Israel lobby is often on top, funding more to candidates and giving more money than most other lobbying groups.
In addition to Israel, the Christian right and the Cuban lobby are major groups in US politics. It’s all about individual factions, explained Cockburn.
“It’s a picture of American politics,” he noted.