Thursday, March 14, 2013

Obama's Israel Kishkes Test Cause For Indigestion

In anticipation of President Obama's visit to Israel, the American pro-Israel community has stressed the importance of a factor which has come to be known as the kishke test.  Kishke is the Yiddish word for gut, and the test refers to how much Israelis and American Jews trust President Obama to support Israel.  The kishke issue has been contentious since as early as May 2008 and remains a weak spot of the Obama administration.  

Elsewhere in American politics, this factor would be called "likability" - that certain charm or charisma that makes a constituent really trust a candidate on an emotional level.  Passing the kishke test is a critical part of any election or public opinion blitz, and is endlessly frustrating to strategists and political scientists for how hard it is to define.  Nonetheless, it remains crucial for any politician seeking greater popularity.  When your business is people, your currency is how many people like you.  Kishkes may be a frustrating variable, but they matter.

The problem, however, is that the kishke test is a lousy strategy for foreign policy making.  No example is more illustrative of this point than the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.  Prior to the invasion, 80% of the American public believed in their kishkes that Iraq had WMD.  This sentiment was due largely to the efforts of Vice President Cheney, Secretary Rumsfeld, and others who also made the case based on kishkes and not on evidence.  Yet nearly 10 years later to the day, evidence that Iraq possessed WMD is sketchy at best.  The foreign policy blunder of the 2003 Iraq War illustrated the dangers of relying too heavily on kishkes.  It also highlighted the importance of an informed American public. Luckily, American pro-Israel organizations and opinion leaders expend substantial effort and money on such efforts - from policy conferences to newsletters to Youtube videos.   

However, with too much focus on the kishke test in the coming weeks, the American pro-Israel community risks ceding ground to those who make assessments of the President based on what they feel he thinks about Israel rather than what the actual record reflects.  This discussion will be predictably partisan and do little to advance US-Israel relations.  It will also based on the historic insecurities of the global Jewish diaspora rather than evidence against the Obama administration which is anything more than petty. 

Instead, U.S. pro-Israel organizations and opinion leaders should judge any U.S. policy changes not by how they make Israel supporters feel but rather the extent to which they actually advance joint US-Israel strategic interests.  Such assessments will serve to better inform the American pro-Israel community.  They will also give the Obama administration a more tangible set of policy items for better securing Israel and the United States.  While the kishke test matters for voters, pro-Israel organizations and opinion leaders should seek to inform their constituents rather than persuade them with blind emotion.