WASHINGTON, April 18 (UPI) -- The Arab-Israeli conflict has been a constant in American politics since President Harry S. Truman first granted U.S. recognition to Israel.
For many years, conventional wisdom held that the Republicans sided with the Arabs while the Democrats were allied with Israel.
In the post-Cold War era many traditional alliances have broken down, causing a worldwide political realignment and producing what some might call "strange bedfellows."
This is certainly the case where internal Republican divisions over the Middle East are concerned.
To the surprise of many, congressional Republicans are rallying to Israel's cause, as evidenced by the warm reception given former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu by Republicans on Capitol Hill last week. Adding to the drama is that by supporting the drive against the Palestinians, congressional Republicans seem to be rejecting the policy of even-handedness a popular president of their own party wants to pursue.
Typically, splits like these arise out of a desire to win votes, raise money or are just plain politics. In this case, these considerations are likely of little importance.
Jewish voters are roughly 4 percent of the total electorate. According to the Voter News Service exit poll, they split their vote 4-to-1 in the 2000 presidential election. Democrat Al Gore received 81 percent of their vote while Republican George W. Bush got 17 percent. Exit polls, which are often suspect, have value here because they use data collected in key precincts around the country to predict the behavior of similar voters around the nation.
The ABC News state-by-state exit polls on the presidential race reflect the division of the VNS numbers. For example, in California, a state where Jews make up 5 percent of the electorate, Gore received 84 percent of their vote while Bush got 15 percent.
The overlay of national and state numbers onto congressional districts is not precise; the available data does suggest that Jewish voters also prefer Democrats to Republicans at the congressional level.
An analysis of soft money contributions for the 1999-2000 election cycle shows an even greater divide. According to The Center for Responsive Politics, the more than $10 million in soft money donations from "Ideological/Single Issue groups" was split about evenly between Democrats and Republicans.
About 5 percent of it was "Soft Money for Pro-Israel in 2000," with 100 percent of it going to the Democrats. The GOP received $1,000 from a political action committee in Alabama, but the donation is statistically insignificant.
Pro-Israel political action committees, which tend, as most PAC's do, to favor incumbents, gave 59 percent of their hard dollars to Democrats and 41 percent to Republicans.
If concerns about Jewish interest groups and campaign dollars are not driving Republican congressional support for Israel in the current crisis, what is?
It is not politics, at least politics as typically understood. GOP pollster Kellyanne Conway says the Arab-Israeli issue "is not one of those issues where we find bipartisan support. It is actually a nonpartisan issue. Emotions run high on both sides."
A recent poll by Harris Interactive for Time magazine found that 56 percent of Americans agree "with the Bush administration's policy toward Israel and the Palestinians" -- the same policy congressional Republicans seem to believe is muddled.
When the partisan question is laid atop the approval figure, the president has the support of 71 percent of Republicans, 50 percent of Independents and 47 percent of Democrats.
The numbers do not surprise Conway. She believes ideology is more important then party affiliation on this issue.
"The more-liberal Democrats and the more-conservative Republicans are going to be pro-Israel. It is the folks in between who are looking for the clean-and-easy solution like land for peace or another negotiated settlement," she said. The 50-50 split among independents in the Harris poll seems to support her theory.
Conway believes the president is being consistent as he seeks to resolve the current crisis. She says he can pursue peace in the region while remaining supportive of Israel because "the American people expect the president to try and stop the fighting. ... Americans favor, as principles, peace, compromise, negotiation -- tiding up our in-box of issues and concerns."
Nevertheless, the divide between the White House and Republicans on Capitol Hill underscores the perception that the administration is of two minds on the issue of terrorism, seeking to root it out where the United States is concerned but wanting to deny Israel's right to do likewise.
On Wednesday, The Wall Street Journal editorial page, often a leading indicator of conservative opinion, strongly pointed up the division in an editorial.
"The Middle East is where Mr. Bush is paying the greatest price for abandoning principle. His line in the sand against terrorism gave his leadership moral authority. Whatever his rough edges, Ariel Sharon is clearly following that Bush principle trying to defend his civilians against suicide bombers. But since Mr. Bush entered the Palestinian bazaar to restrain Israel two weeks ago, his own standing has fallen with all parties."
Marshall Wittmann, a Hudson Institute scholar who follows politics closely agrees the divide exists: "More than anything else, congressional Republicans are committed to the Bush doctrine," which Bush reiterated in his speech Wednesday at the Virginia Military Institute.
"No nation can be neutral," he said. "Around the world, the nations must choose: They are with us or they're with the terrorists. Wherever global terror threatens the civilized world, we and our friends and our allies will respond."
Wittmann, who serves as part of Arizona GOP Sen. John McCain's informal brain trust, says that stance -- especially where Israel is concerned -- has great currency in the congressional party.
Congressional Republicans, says Wittmann, simply "wants the president to follow through on it. Any division that exists is less a lack of loyalty to the president as it is a commitment to his doctrine."
In the end, it appears that the strong congressional support for Israel among Republicans is about principle and about values.
This is why, in Wittmann's words, "The party with fewer Jewish supporters has become the more muscular pro-Israel party."
Georgetown University's Ralph Nurnberger, who lobbied Capitol Hill for eight years on behalf of the America Israel Public Affairs Committee, agrees, attributing the shift in GOP attitudes about Israel to the influence of former Rep. Jack Kemp, R-N.Y., a leader of the party's conservative wing.
"In the early 1980s, Kemp made it acceptable, even fashionable, for Republicans and conservatives to be pro-Israel. His view was based on shared values, a shared view of the importance of democracy and a common assessment of strategic priorities," Nurnberger says.
"I think the Republicans have become a very strong element of the pro-Israel community," he acknowledges in what some might consider a surprising admission. Nurnberger is a Democrat who spoke to Jewish groups on Al Gore's behalf in the 2000 campaign.
Rich Galen, a former aide to one-time House Speaker Newt Gingrich, echoes Nurnberger's feelings about the importance of values.
"Members of the House on both sides of the aisle tend to not be as interested in nuance as senators are, so they tend to see sharper edges to even complicated matters," he says.
"In this instance, this is not a hard choice for them to make. This is not a domestic issue for almost anybody and it is too dangerous to be a political issue," Galen says, meaning that the geopolitical risks are too high to treat the current crisis as a political football like campaign finance re-regulation or drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
"The members look at this as a foreign policy issue and as a right vs. wrong issue," Galen says, adding that is "hard for people to accept because we almost never deal with things outside the political calculus," something he frequently discusses in his Mullings.com column.
The affinity that congressional Republicans have for Israel is also the product of changes among the GOP grassroots. The Republican love affair with Israel, says Wittmann -- who is Jewish and who once headed the lobbying office of the Christian Coalition -- has been a long time in the making.
Before Reagan, "The old GOP establishment was knee-jerk pro-Arab," Wittmann says. Beginning with Reagan, the old guard was replaced by a coterie of activists who gave something more than lip service to issues of principle and values.
Many of these activists are also evangelical Christians, whose support for Israel is as much an expression of their faith as it is an outgrowth of their politics.
The latest show of strength among supporters of Israel on Capitol Hill may also be due to the efforts of Gingrich and Netanyahu.
Gingrich, those close to him are quick to point out, was the most pro-Israel politician ever to be speaker. Taking up where Kemp left off, Gingrich was -- and continues to be -- an aggressive proponent of the idea that the security of the United States and the security of Israel are, essentially, intertwined. The two nations have a common bond of shared values.
Netanyahu, who once served as Israel's ambassador to the United States, has also developed a strong following in Washington and among Republicans.
"They feel very comfortable with Netanyahu," Nurnberger says, referring to the warm reception the former prime minister received on Capitol Hill. "He has been working them for years; he didn't just show up suddenly."
They are comfortable with Netanyahu in part because his philosophy of government is very similar to that of an American Republican. "He is espousing Republican ideology on domestic issues -- taxes, the role of the state in the economy" but Nurnberger doubts that counts for much in terms of the security considerations.
"I am not sure that congressional Republicans care very much about the internal issues of the Israeli economy," he says. "What they care about are the shared strategic objectives."
The administration, as evidenced by the president's speech at the Virginia Military Institute and other comments following the conclusion of Secretary of State Colin Powell's peace mission, appears to be moving their way or at least, some suggest, is recognizing the importance their position has relative to Bush's own future political success.