America: Hot on the hill

Pro-Israel voters express anger with Democrats.

Obama 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Obama 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
WASHINGTON – Congress went on recess this week, meaning that the pace of Washington has slowed, but the intensity of campaigning has heated up. All members of the House are facing re-election, as well as a third of the Senate, and the dog days of summer don’t allow any time for torpor.
Indeed, as the temperature outside rises, so has that of pro-Israel voters who are turning out to town halls and candidate meet-and-greets to call for greater backing of Israel and to express displeasure to Democrats because they feel US President Barack Obama has not sufficiently supported the Jewish state.
“I didn’t get as many e-mails or phone calls in the last years as I was starting to get in the last eight months,” said Steve Rothman, a New Jersey Democrat, on the Israel issue.
And Alan Dershowitz, a prominent pro-Israel activist who himself has for the first time endorsed a Republican running for Congress based largely on concerns over his Democratic opponent’s Israel record, said he has been inundated with concerns and complaints at his public events.
“Wherever I go I hear it from people… They’re planning, for the first time in their life, to vote Republican or stay home,” he said. “It’s a very serious concern for people like me who are lifelong Democrats and lifelong supporters of Israel.”
Many Democratic members with solid records on Israel are finding that they have to defend themselves and field hostile questions on the issue.
The dynamic is playing out in a host of campaigns across the country, particularly as Republicans have sought to use the issue to challenge incumbents. Though most Democratic members of Congress this session have strongly backed aid to Israel, Iran sanctions and other issues important to the pro-Israel community, they have been bearing the brunt of criticism over tensions between the US and Israel that many have blamed on US President Barack Obama’s approach.
“Although President Obama’s not on the ballot, he’s the head of the party. So certainly those who want to try to defeat President Obama, what he’s fighting for, will try to make this an issue for local Congressional candidates or Senate candidates,” noted Ron Klein, a Florida Democrat who finds himself in a tough re-election campaign. “We all have to make our own case.”
Though Obama came into office with 78 percent of the Jewish vote according to exit polls, he had to overcome serious skepticism from some quarters of the Jewish community.
He faced criticism on certain policy grounds – such as his willingness to reach out to Iran and lack of a long Israel record – but also questions over his ties to black liberation minister Jeremiah Wright and Palestinian scholar Rashid Khalidi.
“From the get-go I was suspicious of Obama,” said Paul Krouse, a Jewish voter in Illinois, citing in particular his concerns over the influence Wright had on Obama’s views on Israel.
Krouse ended up voting for Obama, deciding to “give him a chance.” But, he said, “Within a month or 40 days [in office] he starting pandering to the Arab world, and I don’t think he’s let up since.”
In this election, Krouse is backing the Republican Mark Kirk in his quest for the Senate. Even though Obama is in charge of the executive branch, not the legislative, Krouse sees a vote for a Democrat as endorsing Obama’s policies.
“If they’re going to vote down the line with their party, which supports the president, then I have no interest in supporting them,” he said.
Attitudes like Krouse’s have made many Democratic members sure to stress their Israel bona fides and, if necessary, to distinguish themselves from the president.
Confronted with questions about Obama and Israel at an Orthodox synagogue in Palm Beach last month, Klein told the audience, “When I don’t agree with him [Obama] on specific issues, I say so publicly and have looked him in the eye and told him.”
While that’s not the kind of sentiment that’s usually greeted with equanimity by party officials or those sitting in the White House, one Democratic operative said that those groups are giving some room to candidates like Klein who are in close races where they can’t afford to lose pro-Israel votes.
“There’s certainly an understanding, given that he and others like him are in a particularly tough election environment,” said the operative, who asked to remain unnamed.
That extends to the candidates’ coffers, too, where Jewish political activists make some of their deepest impact, though many Democrats downplay the numbers.
One candidate raising money this year put the fundraising loss due to Israel issues at “probably less than a two- to four-percent reduction – so it’s something but not a whole heck of a lot.”
According to the candidate, who spoke on condition of anonymity, “They still want pro-Israel folks to be re-elected whether they had some questions about Obama or not.”
And any trouble with pro-Israel voters can also be a reflection of the problem Democrats are facing among the electorate at large, where Obama’s sinking poll numbers and a grinding recession have many expecting disaster come fall.
Still, Rothman said that for all that the US-Israel issue has come up, he believed the tide has turned and that pro-Israel voters are more receptive to the president in recent weeks.
He said that attitudes among his constituents have improved since Obama hosted Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in a very warm meeting in July, coupled with outreach to the Jewish community and other visible efforts to improve the tone towards Israel.
“To some degree there is remaining skepticism, but it is much, much less than it was even two months ago,” Rothman said. “I’m hopeful that over the coming months the entire pro-Israel community will have any doubts about President Obama’s commitment to Israel eliminated.”