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
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
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.
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
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
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
(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.