The Myth of an Israel-Centered “Jewish Vote” Is Energizing Both Parties — With Negative Consequences for Both Democracy and Middle East Peace
Allan C. Brownfeld
Both Republicans and Democrats, as the 2012 presidential election campaign gets under way, are putting forth strenuous efforts to attract what many perceive to be an Israel-centered “Jewish vote,” as if millions of Americans of the Jewish faith cast their ballots on the basis of criteria different from those of their Protestant, Catholic or Muslim fellow citizens.
It appears that a cynical campaign is under way to make it appear that President Barack Obama has dramatically altered U.S. Middle East policy in a manner which places Israel at a disadvantage. This effort seems to have been orchestrated by the Israeli government itself. When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Washington in May, he lectured President Obama in a press briefing and made it seem as if the president was seeking to impose upon Israel its pre-1967 borders. Republicans immediately responded, charging, as Mitt Romney declared, that President Obama was “throwing Israel under the bus.”
The facts, however, tell a far different story. In his speech shortly before Netanyahu’s arrival, President Obama said that the borders of Israel and a future Palestinian state “should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps.” This was hardly new U.S. policy but has been a fundamental tenet of American policy for decades.
Nothing about “Land-Swaps”
Writing in The New Yorker, Hendrik Hertzberg noted that, “… as the two men sat for the cameras before the Oval Office fireplace, Netanyahu delivered a lecture about the unacceptability of those 1967 borders, as if his host had said nothing about land swaps. The Prime Minister sounded more like a Fox News ‘contributor’ than like the leader of an ally dependent upon the U.S. for its survival.”
In his speech before a joint session of Congress, Netanyahu, Hertzberg argues, “cast the dispute in the Biblical-tribal terms favored by the religious right, Israeli and American … More important, Netanyahu, in some cases retreating from positions his predecessors had tentatively accepted, laid down his maximal demands … For those who had hoped for some new thinking, some bold initiative, some something, some anything — there was nothing.”
Columnist Nehamia Shtrasler, writing in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, states that, “Netanyahu is not ready for any agreement, any concession, any withdrawal; as far as he is concerned, it’s all the Land of Israel.”
Writing in Washington Jewish Week, columnist Doug Bloomfield asks: “Why would a smart fellow like Benjamin Netanyahu … deliberately distort what Barack Obama had said in a speech the day before? The president had restated long standing U.S. policy that had also been the position of previous Israeli prime ministers — the 1967 lines should be a reference point for negotiations with the Palestinians subject to mutually agreed changes and land swaps — not the final borders. That’s essentially what George W. Bush has said in his 2004 letter to Ariel Sharon … AIPAC issued a statement acknowledging Obama ‘does not expect Israel to withdraw’ to pre-1967 boundaries. If they can figure that out, why can’t Netanyahu?”
Applause of Right Wing
Bloomfield provides this assessment: “Why would Netanyahu tell Israeli reporters that Obama was deviating from longstanding U.S. policy and charting a dangerous new course when he knew that wasn’t true? … Netanyahu may have dissed the American president for the applause of his right wing base, but he should know better. The last time Netanyahu (who once toasted ‘I speak Republican’) tried to demonize an American president — in cahoots with then-GOP House leader Newt Gingrich — he was soon out of a job.”
In reality, Bloomfield argues, “Obama was much tougher on the Palestinians than on Israel … The president branded Fatah’s unity deal with Hamas an ‘enormous obstacle’ to peace and said negotia-tions broke down because the Palestinians ‘have walked away from the talks.’ Bush adviser Stephen Hadley said Obama had put the burden on the Palestinians to show they are ready to accept Israel and negotiate peace.”
In Israel itself, Netanyahu has been widely criticized for creating an artificial rift with the Obama administration. The Jerusalem Report writes that, “Deftly, Netanyahu maneuvered and misrepresented President Obama’s foreign policy speech. … to suggest that the president wants Israel to return to the 1967 lines. And with this move, Netanyahu not only propped up his right-wing coalition back home, he also skillfully handed the Republicans a valuable gift by making it clear that Israelis — or at least those Netanyahu represents — don’t feel that the U.S. is behind them … The Republicans are quick on the uptake. The president, they have been gleefully charging, quoting a line first coined by Republican Mitt Romney is ‘throwing Israel under the bus.’”
While Netanyahu may have created the false impression of a change in U.S. policy in order to avoid making the concessions necessary for a genuine peace agreement with the Palestinians, what he really achieved is a growing feeling in Washington that he is, at the very least, an unreliable ally. Robert Gates, the former defense secretary, said Netanyahu was “ungrateful” for U.S. military aid and assistance and that he gave America nothing in return.
Mr. Gates made his remarks after the May meeting between Netanyahu and President Obama. According to The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, in a column for Bloomberg News, Gates excoriated Netanyahu at a meeting of the National Security Council Principals — the council of top U.S. officials handling defense and security. He noted increased assistance under Obama to Israel, including intelligence sharing and missile defense cooperation. He said that Netanyahu had been especially unhelpful regarding the peace process with the Palestinians and that Netanyahu’s policies endangered Israel.
Goldberg reported that no one in the room objected to the characterization, and said that officials were leaking the remarks now because the U.S. is once again taking Israel’s side at the United Nations in the case of the bid by Palestinians to get the body to recognize Palestine as a state.
Mobilizing for “Jewish Vote”
Whatever the merits of the debate over U.S. Middle East policy, what is clear is the manner in which both the Democratic and Republican parties are now mobilizing to appeal to what they seem to believe is a “Jewish vote.”
In August, the Obama campaign appointed veteran political strategist Ira Forman, a former legisla-tive liaison at AIPAC, as its director of Jewish outreach. “For those who believe that President Obama is in trouble with the Jewish community, Ira Forman is just the right medicine,” said William Daroff, the Jewish Federations of North America’s chief lobbyist. “His skill and knowledge will ensure that Jewish Democrats stay loyal to their party, and he has the ability to ensure that skeptics will be reassured about President Obama’s support for Israel.”
Forman is a former Clinton administration official who managed the National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC) for nearly l5 years. “The fact that Ira is one of the first employees hired by the re-election effort speaks to the importance the campaign places on Jewish outreach,” added Daroff, a former Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) official.
Support for Israel
Currently, Obama’s approval rating among Jews stands at around 60 percent, according to several recent polls. “I don’t think the administration has articulated the depth and breadth of its support for Israel as well as it needs to,” said former Rep. Mel Levine (D-CA), who campaigned for Obama in the Jewish community in 2008, and will do so again this season. “Our biggest challenge is to essentially explain the facts and get the record out.” This, he said, includes letting Jews know that Obama has brought the U.S. military relationship to new heights and worked hard to foster peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
The New York Times reported in September that, “It is no surprise that the Democratic National Committee meeting in Chicago … included briefings of jobs and health care, issues critical to President Obama’s re-election. But the third topic presented to top party donors and fund-raisers was perhaps more surprising: ‘Jewish messaging’ … Matthew Brooks, the executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said that the need to focus a discussion on Jewish outreach, alongside major national issues like jobs and health care, suggested the depth of skepticism Mr. Obama faced among some Jewish donors.”
According to Brooks, “The fact that this ranks in the level of those three, by definition underscores that they are panicked about the erosion of support in the Jewish community. The fact that they have to spend time and resources shoring up what is normally a solid Democratic core constituency under-scores the challenges they are facing.”
Courtship of Jews
In a column headlined “Republican Courtship of the Jews,” Suzanne Fields, writing in The Wash-ington Times, declares: “Now there may be cracks in Jewish support for President Obama, whose concern for Israel can only be described as ‘not so much’ … Ed Koch, the former Democratic mayor of New York City, urged Jews to vote for the Republican in the race to succeed former Rep. Anthony Weiner as a protest against Mr. Obama’s position on Israel … The Jewish vote is small, but it could make a difference in Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Nevada. None of this is lost on Mitt Romney, who is aggressively courting Jews, emphasizing his support of Israel …”
The Forward reports that, “The potency of Israel as a wedge issue for Republicans going into 20l2 was on full display when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu invited a small group of Democrats and Republicans to a first-ever meeting at Blair House one day before his May 24 speech to Congress … what was meant to be a show of bipartisanship ended as a war of words between heads of the National Jewish Democratic Coalition and the Republican Jewish Coalition …. Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the newly appointed head of the Democratic National Committee, suggested at the meeting that both parties pledge not to raise the issue of Israel in a partisan manner. But an angry Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Council, responded the following day in a letter to Wasserman Schultz that her request, made in front of a foreign leader, was politically motivated.”
Republican Ari Fleischer, who was the spokesman for President George W. Bush, argued in a panel discussion at the AIPAC conference in May, that even a small shift by Jewish voters, that could be generated around Obama’s remarks about the 1967 borders, could make a big difference for Republi-cans. According to Fleischer’s calculation, if the Democrats’ 4-1 favorable ratio among Jewish voters drops to 3-1, it could be tough for Obama to lose both Florida and Ohio.
Jews as a Special Interest Group
It seems that, for both Democrats and Republicans, Jews are not members of a religious community but are a special interest group to be appealed to on the basis of U.S. policy toward another country, Israel. While there is a National Jewish Democratic Coalition and a Republican Jewish Coalition, we do not see similar groups aimed at other religious groups. There is, for example, no Republican Presbyterian Coalition, or Democratic Roman Catholic Coalition.
National Jewish organizations, from the American Jewish Committee to the Anti-Defamation League to AIPAC, encourage the view that the dominant interest of Americans of Jewish faith in the political arena is Israel and U.S. Middle East policy. Religious bodies proclaim Israel “central” to Judaism.
Republicans and Democrats cannot be blamed for taking these Jewish groups at their word and appealing for Jewish votes on the basis presented to them.
The reality, of course, is that these Jewish organizations which pretend to speak for millions of American Jews, in fact, speak only for their own small membership, if that. All available evidence indicates that there is no such thing as a “Jewish vote,” and that Jewish voters cast their ballots on the basis of precisely the same issues as other voters.
Nation’s Economic Decline
A recent Gallup Poll indicates that Jewish voters are less happy with President Obama because of the nation’s economic decline, not policy toward Israel. Washington Jewish Week reports that, “Gallup’s monthly trend in Jewish approval of Obama continues to roughly follow the path of Americans’ approval of the president, more generally as it has since Obama took office in January 2009.” Gallup reported that, “The 14-percentage-point difference in the two groups’ approval ratings in June — 60 percent among U.S. Jews vs. 46 percent among all U.S. adults — is identical to the average gap seen over the past two and a half years.”
This tracks with polling done by the American Jewish Committee for a number of years which has shown that Jewish voters consistently prioritize the economy over Israel when they enter the polling booth. A poll in the Fall of 20l0 showed Obama with an approval rating of just 51 percent, those who approved of his Middle East policy slightly outnumbered those who disapproved, 49 percent to 45 percent, while disapproval of his handling of the economy was at 51 percent, as opposed to 45 percent who approved.
These polls also show that Jewish voters consistently list Israel as fifth among their priorities, outranked by issues such as the economy, health care and broader foreign policy concerns. Recently, Gallup was inspired to look into the Jewish numbers of its weekly tracking polls because of a column by Ben Smith at Politico that forecast Jewish problems for Obama ahead of the 2012 election year.
No Shift in Jewish Opinion
Smith said that Obama’s May 19 Middle East policy speech had shaken Jewish confidence in the president. “Aggregated Gallup Daily tracking interviews for the month and a half period prior to and following the speech show no significant nor sustained shift in Jewish Americans’ views toward Obama,” Gallup said. “Sixty-five percent approved of him for the April 1-May 18 time period, and 62 percent approved from May 19-June 30. Across the two time periods, approval was also essentially flat among all U.S. adults.”
In his book A New Voice for Israel (Palgrave Macmillan), J Street founder Jeremy Ben-Ami notes that although AIPAC claims to represent the traditional Jewish voice in American politics, surveys reveal that only 8 percent of American Jewish voters support its political positions. He goes on to argue that Israel’s occupation over another people is a threat to both American and Israeli long-term interests and also violates the very letter of Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which promises equality to all, regardless of race, religion or gender. According to Ben-Ami, Israel is on the brink of becoming an “apartheid state” and losing its status as a moral beacon to Jews and as the safe and democratic haven its pioneers sought to create.
Columnist Doug Bloomfield points out that, “The real name of the game is money. Jews are about 2 percent of the voting population, and shrinking, but we make up a significant proportion of contributors to both parties. That’s why Democratic operatives are scurrying about reassuring big Jewish givers of Obama’s commitment to Israel and Republicans are trying to lure them away. … Netanyahu can get more votes in the U.S. Congress than in the Knesset, but don’t confuse the enthusiasm of American lawmakers with their Jewish constituents. Polls by and for Jewish organizations in recent years have shown that Israel is diminishing as a determinative issue for Jewish voters. A survey this spring for media watchdog Camera showed only 7 percent of Jewish voters consider Israel the issue ‘which matters most to them’ in the 2012 election. For most it is fifth or sixth in their priority list.”
New York Election
In mid-September, voters in New York elected a conservative Republican to represent a Democratic district that has not been in Republican hands since the 1920s. Bob Turner, the winner, cast the election as a referendum on President Obama’s stewardship of the economy and, in the state’s Ninth Congres-sional District, which has a large population of Orthodox Jewish voters, the president’s position on Israel. Turner, who is Roman Catholic, defeated David Weprin, an Orthodox Jew and strong supporter of Israel.
This election came on the same day as Republicans defeated Democrats in another special House election in northern Nevada. In both contests, the GOP pulled ahead by linking the Democratic candidate to the Obama administration’s handling of the economy. Both Republican contenders urged voters to “send a message” to the president.
In the New York election, which has been discussed in terms of President Obama’s growing diffi-culties with Jewish voters, many factors were involved. The Democratic candidate, David Weprin, got into hot water with Orthodox Jewish voters in the district — as well as Catholic voters — because of support of a same-sex marriage bill while serving in the state legislature.
Siena College pollster Steven Greenberg said that general voter frustration with the slumping economy, a poor get-out-the-vote campaign and ill-advised spending of campaign money on t.v. ads by Mr. Weprin had at least as much to do with the election’s outcome as issues such as Israel and same-sex marriage. “You had a really bad campaign for the Democrats and a very effective campaign by Republicans,” he said.
Israel as a Wedge Issue
Whatever the results in New York really mean in political terms, the fact is that policy toward Israel and the alleged “Jewish vote” have become subjects of widespread discussion. According to The New York Times, “Republican groups are determined to make Israel a wedge issue. In recent days, billboards went up around New York City showing Mr. Obama smiling and shaking hands with the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, and declaring that the president is ‘not pro-Israel.’”
Those who seek to make policy toward Israel a campaign issue in 2012 have, it seems, changed the meaning of what it means to be “pro-Israel.” Columnist Doug Bloomfield, at one time an AIPAC associate, notes that the president’s critics “keep raising the bar on what constitutes pro-Israel. An increasingly strident former colleague said my failure to share his pro-Likud, pro-settlement and anti-Arab viewpoint was ‘yet another indication of Bloomfield’s own lukewarm support for Israel.’ Anyone who fails to adhere to their strict dogma becomes a target for right-wing extremists. … Morton Klein of the Zionist Organization of America said the president’s actions suggest ‘a distaste or even hostility toward Jews and Israel.’”
In reality, Bloomfield points out, the president’s Middle East policy is precisely the same as his predecessors and when Israel has come under attack, he has risen in its defense: “here’s what happened (in Egypt). A mob ransacked the embassy and was moving in on six Israeli security guards stranded inside. Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak repeatedly tried to call Egypt’s new strongman, Mohammed Tantawi, but were told he could not be located. So Netanyahu called Obama and Barack called Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. The prime minister reported to the Israeli people about Obama’s actions: ‘I would say it was a decisive moment … fateful, I would even say.’ He said ‘I will do all that I can.’ He did that. He applied all of the means and influence of the United States of America, which are certainly substantial. And I think we owe him special thanks.’”
Standing by Allies
Israel’s politically conservative Orthodox paper Hamodiya praised President Obama’s “immediate and effective” response to Netanyahu’s call for help, noting, “Much has been made of the strained relations between Netanyahu and the White House in recent days, but in this test of standing by one’s allies in a matter of life and death, Barack Obama came through. He merited to be Hashem’s instrument of salvation. The Jewish community all over the world offers him our heartfelt thanks.”
Just as President Obama arrived at the U.N. in September to attempt to persuade Palestinian Presi-dent Abbas not to proceed with his plan to unilaterally proclaim a Palestinian state, Republicans, sensing that the alleged “Jewish vote” could be influenced, harshly attacked Mr. Obama. Texas Gov. Rick Perry accused him of “appeasement” of the Palestinians and Mitt Romney charged the president with “repeated efforts over three years to throw Israel under the bus and undermine its negotiating position.”
All of this politicization of Middle East policy, argues The New York Times, is complicating the president’s role: “The relationship between the Israeli government and the Republican Party has … complicated the administration’s diplomatic efforts to avert a confrontation at the U.N. … over the Palestinian bid for full membership as a state, limiting President Obama’s ability to exert pressure on Mr. Netanyahu to make concessions that could restart negotiations with the Palestinians.”
Editorially, The Forward had this to say about efforts to appeal to Jewish voters by portraying the presi-dent as “anti-Israel”: “… the ad hominen attacks and character assassination fly in the face of the facts. And they willfully ignore the many behind-the-scenes actions that dramatize the stubbornly strong relationship between the U.S. and Israel.”
Politicization of Middle East Policy
The quest for a mythical Israel-centered “Jewish vote” is causing the dangerous politicization of U.S. Middle East policy, and the government of Israel appears to be involving itself in internal American politics. Time’s Joe Klein declares that Netanyahu “has now overtly tossed his support to the Republicans.”
One result may be that the U.S. loses influence throughout the Middle East and, because it is unable or unwilling to move the Israeli government toward a genuine two-state solution, will cede any ability to work as a mediator trusted by both parties.
The fact is that there is no Jewish vote — only the votes of millions of individual Jewish Americans. These ballots are cast on the same basis as are those of Americans of other faiths. It is a dangerous challenge to our democracy to try to divide voters on the basis of religion, and to do so on the basis of a false picture of U.S. Middle East policy is harmful to all — to Israel, to the Palestinians, to American interests in the region and, perhaps most important, to the truth itself.