Why Oren’s denial missed Wasserman Schultz’s point

Why Oren’s denial missed Wasserman Schultz’s point

In a high stakes dispute this week, the distinction between a party's election tactics and its substantive policies seems to have been lost

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Analysts credit Debbie Wasserman Schultz with helping secure victory for President Obama in Florida, and with puncturing claims that he doesn't support Israel. (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Analysts credit Debbie Wasserman Schultz with helping secure victory for President Obama in Florida, and with puncturing claims that he doesn't support Israel. (Photo credit: Courtesy)

Debbie Wasserman Schultz was right. Michael Oren does believe, in principle, that “what Republicans are doing is dangerous for Israel.” The question is, what does Wasserman Schultz mean by “what Republicans are doing?”

(And, to be clear, I’m not arguing Republicans are actually doing it, only that what Wasserman Schultz believes they are doing Michael Oren believes is dangerous for Israel.)

Here’s the story.

Democratic National Committee Chair and Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz was castigated this week after reporters leaked that she had told a group of Democratic Jewish activists (and some reporters) that, “We know, and no less than Ambassador Michael Oren said this, what the Republicans are doing is dangerous for Israel. They’re undermining Israel’s security by suggesting that the United States and Israel don’t have anything other than a unique and close and special relationship. It undermines Israel’s security to its neighbors in the Arab world and to its enemies. And we need to make sure that the fact that there has never been and will never be daylight between the two parties or the support for Israel that we have in the United States, that that is conveyed to Jewish Americans across this country. That’s our responsibility. It’s the responsibility we’re asking all of you to take on.”

After the story leaked in the Washington Examiner, Oren quickly released a statement saying, “I categorically deny that I ever characterized Republican policies as harmful to Israel. Bipartisan support is a paramount national interest for Israel, and we have great friends on both sides of the aisle.”

Fox News carried the story to millions of Americans, saying several times that Oren “categorically denied that he ever said Republican policies were bad for Israel,” and “denied that he’d ever called Republican policies harmful for Israel, and that his nation has friends in both the United States political parties.”

Did you catch the switch buried in all the repetition?

Wasserman Schultz blasted “what the Republicans are doing,” while Fox News and the Washington Examiner which broke the original story, and Michael Oren in their wake, were accusing her of talking about “Republican policies” on Israel.

But what if “what the Republicans are doing” had nothing to do with “Republican policies?”

For instance, what if Wasserman Schultz was saying, “Republican accusations that the Democrats are bad for Israel, are themselves bad for Israel?” What if, as Ambassador Oren surely advocates and even included in his own rebuttal, she was speaking out in support of bipartisanship on Israel, rather than about either party’s policies?

What if she was talking about Republican electoral tactics vis-à-vis Israel, not its policies?

That distinction is not a technicality. It matters.

This election could be decided by a knife’s edge – and that edge could easily be Florida and Ohio Jews. That reality has led the Republicans to launch an unprecedented effort to reach out to Jewish voters and argue that if reelected, Democratic incumbent Barack Obama will “throw Israel under the bus,” in the words of Republican challenger Mitt Romney.

Jews will not likely be swayed on social issues; by a vast majority, they support Democratic positions on reproduction and legalized abortions, on health care and education. But if they perceive a real danger to Israel from the Democrats, enough might be swayed to switch sides to make a difference come November.

In fact, those in charge of Democratic Party outreach to Jews (the Obama campaign’s Ira Forman, for instance) have said as much this week.

So Republicans have declared a full-fledged war on the Democrats’ reputation on Israel, pumping millions of dollars – many of them from Sheldon Adelson – and founding entire new organizations, such as the Emergency Committee for Israel, to convince Jews and Christian Zionists the Democrats are bad on Israel.

Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the pro-Israel, Jewish congresswoman from South Florida – the representative of those supposedly swaying Jews from the most important of all battleground states – has suggested that this Republican assault is actually bad for Israel.

And she is raising a legitimate question. Is it really a good thing for the Jewish state to be at the center of a national debate about whether the party representing roughly half of American voters will betray her?

Asked by Fox News about Michael Oren’s “Republican policies” statement, Wasserman Schultz replied, “I didn’t say [Oren] said that. And unfortunately, that comment was reported by a conservative newspaper. It’s not surprising that they would deliberately misquote me. What I always say is that unfortunately the Republicans have made Israel a political football, which is dangerous for Israel. And Ambassador Oren has said that we can’t ever suggest that there is any daylight between the two parties on Israel because there isn’t. And that that’s harmful to Israel. That’s what I said, and that is accurate.”

And she was right; that is what she said he said. And in denying he said the other thing, he actually repeated what she had said he said. (I know, it can be confusing. The Washington Post was confused too, failing to grasp the distinction between policies and election tactics, and so accusing Wasserman Schultz of lying.)

One wonders what Prof. Michael Oren – not just the ambassador, but also the renowned scholar of American Middle East policy – really believes about this election’s focus on Israel.

In the final analysis, what the DNC chair actually said was much more damning for Republicans than whether or not the ambassador agrees with their policies. In effect, Wasserman Schultz accused Republicans of endangering Israel’s wall-to-wall support in American politics for the sake of a momentary advantage in a single election season.

She accused them, in fact, of betraying Israel’s interests in their zeal to find traitors on the other side.

read more: