Ahead of Tuesday’s primary election in Florida, GOP presidential candidates Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney seemed to be trying to outdo each other over their unequivocal support for Israel.

During Thursday night’s CNN debate, both candidates blamed the Palestinians for being obstacles to peace. Romney said that Israel would be happy to have a two-state solution, “it’s the Palestinians who don’t want a two-state solution. They want to eliminate the State of Israel.”

Gingrich, who reiterated his “invented people” assertion, said that the Palestinians would be entitled to self-government only after they: 1) Recognize Israel’s right to exist; 2) Abandon a right of return to what is now Israel for Palestinian refugees; and 3) Abandon hate speech against Jews.

Gingrich also vowed that he would relocate the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, our capital.

Indeed, many of the same positions on the Israeli- Palestinian conflict are shared by all the Republican candidates, with the exception of Ron Paul, whose positions on Israel are at best controversial and who has vowed to cut off all US foreign aid, including to Israel.

The Republican candidates’ outspoken support for Israel is at least in part due to a perception that Americans – particularly American Jews – are dissatisfied with the Obama administration’s policies toward the Jewish state. Emphasizing their support for Israel is, they believe, a way of wooing voters away from support for Obama.

Indeed, in the American Jewish Committee’s annual survey of American Jewish opinion, which was conducted in September, 53 percent of respondents disapproved of the Obama administration’s handling of US-Israel relations while just 40% approved.

However, Republican candidates’ pro-Israel messages – which are sometimes more hawkish than those of some Zionist American Jews – are more likely directed at Evangelical Christians. After all, Florida’s primary is open only to registered Republican Party members, while most of Florida’s Jews – who make up 3.4% of the population – are registered Democrats. Evangelical Christians are undoubtedly a bigger chunk of the Republican electorate in the Sunshine State than the Jews. Exit polls from the 2008 GOP primary show that 39% of voters identified themselves as born-again or Evangelical Christians.

Many of them are no less dissatisfied with Washington’s policies vis-à-vis Israel. In a Gallup poll conducted in May 2011, 39% of white Evangelicals said that Obama’s foreign policies favored the Palestinians too much, compared to 33% who said they struck the right balance.

Nor is it clear that Israel is a determining factor for the Jewish vote. In the above-mentioned AJC survey, Obama easily won a strong majority of the Jewish vote against various Republican candidates, including Romney. And AJC surveys in the past four years have shown that Israel has consistently ranked no more than fifth on American Jewish voters’ priority list. Ranking higher are domestic matters.

In Florida, where much of the Jewish population is elderly, issues such as healthcare rank high. And assuming elderly Jews are concerned for the wellbeing of the next generation, unemployment, house prices and other economic issues will figure prominently as well. In Florida in particular, where there is a large Latino population, immigration and the naturalization of undocumented workers will undoubtedly play a major factor.

(Romney is expected to be hurt in Florida by his publicized opposition to the DREAM Act – supported by 90% of Hispanic voters – which would legalize immigrants who came as children and then enrolled in college or the military.) The pro-Israel rhetoric we are witnessing in the run-up to the Florida primary seems to be directed principally at the Evangelical vote. And even when serious courting of the Jewish vote in Florida commences as the general election approaches, it is not at all clear that talking strong on Israel will be the best way to win hearts.

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