In Israel, a U.S. candidate for president keeps it simple

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Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain visits the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City, August 24, 2011. (Photo: Bernat Armangue / AP)

By his own account, one of the knocks on Herman Cain as a candidate for president is his lack of foreign policy experience.  He has succeeded in the business world, running Godfather’s Pizza, and hosts an Atlanta radio talk show. But his current trip to Israel is his first, and at a breakfast with reporters on Sunday, the Republican shared what he has learned.

“I had a very interesting meeting with the deputy prime minister and, in short, you must defend yourself,” Cain said, summing up the message received from Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon, Israel’s minister for strategic affairs, and a proud hawk.

Cain also met with Ron Nachman, the indefatigable mayor of Ariel, a settlement of 18,000 Israelis established 11 miles into the West Bank, specifically to impede the territorial integrity of any future Palestinian state. “It’s not a settlement, it’s a community,” Cain reported. “It’s a thriving community, a healthy community, a growing community…despite the proximity to Palestine.”

In addition, the candidate renewed his acquaintance with Danny Danon, the vice speaker of the Knesset and Israel’s unofficial ambassador to American evangelicals.  The two had a friend in common in Glenn Beck, with whom Cain appeared on stage last week.  It was a meeting of the minds: Danon also embraces the role of high-profile protector of the settlement movement.

“So I have, in my opinion, gotten a consistent perspective about the challenges that Israel faces,” Cain said, summing things up nicely.

There are other perspectives, of course, even within the right-wing ruling coalition of prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But Cain expressed no appetite to hear them. Later he was slated to meet the leader of the opposition — “That lady’s name?” he asked, turning to an advisor, and heard: “Tzipi Livni” — but that would be “opposition” in the Israeli context, the only one Cain said he cared about.  He met no Palestinian during his visit.

“We had a meeting [planned] with the head of the Palestinian state,” Cain said, referring, it turned out, to Salam Fayyad, whose title is prime minister of the Palestinian National Authority.  But the meeting fell victim to scheduling complications,  and the Cain indicated he was not missing much. “You wouldn’t be surprised by the perspective you’d get from the Palestinians, would you?”

Hard to say.  Fayyad, a former World Bank economist, is in fact a formidable briefer of visiting dignitaries. And he would have had some interesting facts to place before Cain, whose “common sense” approach to foreign policy includes clarifying just who is a friend and who is an enemy. “I do not,” he said, ” support providing financial assistance to our enemies.”

The United States gives about half a billion dollars to the Palestinians, including some $300 million to the government Fayyad controls. Roughly a third of that goes to supporting the Palestinian security forces that were trained and advised by Americans. These forces coordinate with Israel in suppressing terrorism, including plots traced to Hamas, the militant party that controls the other chunk of Palestinian territory, the coastal Gaza Strip. The quiet cooperation with Israel places the West Bank government at some peril, as polls show that half the Palestinian public regards it as “collaboration” with the occupying power, an offense traditionally punishable by death.  The other half deems it acceptable, not least because Fayyad’s definition of the rule of law —  “one law, one gun” — spelled the end of the warlords and thuggish militias that emerged in the chaos of the Second Intifada.

Maintaining the current security equilibrium is an exceptionally delicate business, especially as the Palestinians approach the United Nations to request statehood, a move the U.S. government opposes. But in a world divided cleanly between friends and enemies, the question might not even come up.

“I don’t know how statehood is going to be defined,” Cain said. “If it assumes Israel is going to give up anything Israel says it does not want to give up, I’m against that.”

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