US Elections: Why Israel is a ‘red state’

Poll after poll shows Israelis favor Republican candidate Mitt Romney over US President Barack Obama. This even though their American Jewish brethren hold the opposite point of view. Why?

Romney, Obama shake hands at town hall debate 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Mike Segar)
Romney, Obama shake hands at town hall debate 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Mike Segar)
Were Israel America’s 51st state, it is clear – at least based on various polls in Israel over the last five months – that it would be giving its hypothetical 13 electoral votes (based on the size of its population) to Republican candidate Mitt Romney in the upcoming US elections.
In other words, Israel – in American political terms – is a deep red state. Unlike the popular stereotypes of Jews, we here in Israel are Texas, Nebraska and Indiana.
What is so jarring about this is the degree to which it stands in sharp contrast to the voting trends of American Jews.
An Israel Democracy Institute/Tel Aviv University Peace Index poll released this week found that when asked “in terms of Israeli interests, who would be preferable to win the elections next month in the US,” 57.2 percent of Israeli Jews said Romney, and only 21.5% said Obama.
These findings are consistent with other findings over the last few months, including a Jerusalem Post poll in mid October that found that only 18% of Israelis believe Obama is pro- Israel, while 28% believe him to be pro-Palestinian; another Peace Index poll from August showing that 40% of Israeli Jews believe Romney assigns “more importance to defending Israel’s national interests,” compared to 19% for Obama; and a Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies poll from June showing that 29% of Israelis believe Romney would better promote Israel’s interests, as opposed to 22% for Obama.
What is clear from all those figures is that over the past four years Obama has not exactly won over the Israeli Jewish public. In other words, Israelis have not felt the love. The same, of course, cannot be said of Israel’s American Jewish brethren.
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Jews, according to 2008 exit polls, voted for Obama over John McCain by a 78% to 22% margin.
And Obama’s numbers among American Jews, four years down the line, are still very high, though not as high as they were back then, something that could play a significant role in a close election.
A Gallup tracking poll from July 1 – September 10 found that Jews planned to vote for Obama over Romney by a 64% – 25% margin. And an American Jewish Committee poll in mid September put that number at 65% for Obama, 24% for Romney and 10% undecided.
The Obama campaign is well aware of the importance of strong Jewish support, and an indication of this is the degree to which the president, in his last foreign policy debate with Romney, stressed his commitment to Israel and spoke of the “unprecedented military and intelligence cooperation” between the two countries.
Indeed, focusing on this “unprecedented military and intelligence cooperation” has been a key line for Obama supporters in sending out email blasts and writing op-ed pieces about the president’s relations with Israel.
“Forget all the background noise,” these arguments loosely run, “and look at the record. And the record shows that the military and intelligence relationship has never been better.” For instance, Carl Levin, the Jewish senator from Michigan and chairman of the Armed Services Committee, sent a letter this week touting the unprecedented level of military ties.
He quoted Defense Minister Ehud Barak as saying, “I should tell you honestly that this administration, under President Obama, is doing in regard to our security more than anything I can remember in the past.”
He also quoted Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu telling AIPAC in May, “Our security cooperation is unprecedented. And President Obama has backed his words with deeds.”
So if Obama has been so good for Israel’s security, why are Israelis so cold toward him? Why doesn’t this argument resonate in Israel? Oz Almog, a Haifa University sociologist and author of numerous books and articles on the Israeli psyche, said that to some degree it has to do with the emotional makeup of the Israeli.
Israelis are emotional and their impressions are linked to images and symbols, he said. He added that the images Israelis have taken away from Obama over the past four years have been those of a president who skipped over visiting Israel, even though he went to Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey; who showed disrespect to and snubbed the prime minister in Washington; and who has revealed hesitance in dealing with Iran.
Further, he added, the Israeli media is very Israel-centric, and the information most people have about Obama only relates to his dealing and attitude toward Israel.
Israelis on the whole do not know about Obama’s position on abortion, or on high technology, or a variety of other issues which might make him more palpable to the Israeli public, he argued. Since the media’s focus on Obama is almost exclusively on how he relates to us, and even this in a rather simplistic manner, the image of most is that relationship has deteriorated under his watch, he said.
Interestingly, while Israelis look at Obama and judge him almost solely on how he is toward the Jewish state, American Jews are judging him by his position on numerous other issues. Indeed, the AJC poll in September showed that Israel was a distant fourth among the issues that American Jews listed as most important to them, following the economy, health care and abortion.
The wide gap between American and Israeli perception of Obama, Almog said, was also an example of widening differences between American and Israeli Jewry over the years. “We are not synchronized,” he said, and our different perceptions of Obama is just one measure of that.
Tamar Hermann, the co-director of the Peace Index and the academic director at the Israel Democracy Institute’s Guttman Center for Surveys, said that another reason why saying Obama has been great for Israel’s security does not resonate loudly here is because it is not necessarily the most important factor when Israelis judge the US president.
“Today there is close security cooperation with [Egyptian President Mohamed] Morsi,” she said.
“So do Israelis think Morsi likes Israel?” Besides, she said, just because certain experts – both American and Israeli – say that the Israel-US security relationship is at an unprecedented level, does not mean Israelis believe that assessment is correct. Regardless of what Netanyahu said at AIPAC in May, she said the prime minister, who she described as “king of the ship,” has over time not presented Obama as one for whom Israel’s security is the most important thing.
Furthermore, she said, Romney’s mentality, as a conservative, is not only closer to Netanyahu’s, but also more in line right now with the Israeli public.
“The Left is not very popular here today,” she said. “So those whose ideology is very similar to the Left, like Obama, are not very popular.”
Another view was suggested by Ariel Sharon’s former spokesman, Ra’anan Gissin, who has a doctorate from Syracuse in political science. He explained Obama’s lack of popularity among Israelis by looking at the Jewish psyche.
“Jews always need warmth,” Gissin said. “It has to do with our history. We crave for others to love us because we were always hated and castigated.”
Gissin said that former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat understood this part of the country’s mentality, and realized that if he would just give the Israelis some gestures – like a visit to Jerusalem – they would “melt and give up everything.”
But, Gissin said, the minute “someone does not embrace us, then we think he hates us. We see things strongly in terms of someone is either for us, or against us; either he loves us or hate us. There is no middle ground.”
What is interesting about the disparity regarding how Israeli and American Jews look at Obama, he pointed out, was that there was no Jewish unity on the question of whether Obama is for or against us. There is no consensus here to that eternal Jewish question: Is he good for the Jews.
While Obama, he argued, has not radiated the badly desired warmth toward Israel – illustrative by his failure to come to Israel during his first four years, even when he was so close by – he did do so toward American Jews, evident by holding Pessah Seders and appointing Jews to the highest positions in his administration.
Obama’s embrace of American Jews, and his failure to do the same to Israeli Jews, was on display clearly during his visit to the region in May 2009, that selfsame visit where he went to Cairo, but skipped over Jerusalem.
On the way back to Washington, however, he paid a visit to Buchenwald, along with Elie Wiesel. This was a highly symbolic act that resonated loudly for American Jews. Here, it hardly registered and was more than outweighed by his failure to stop in Jerusalem.
Obama supporters will argue that the man is president of the United States, not Israel, and needs neither to coddle nor embrace Israelis – they are simply not his constituency. And while this is surely true, his failure to do so goes along way in explaining why all those arguments about Obama being great for Israel’s security do not resonate with a majority of Israelis who consistently tell pollsters they prefer Romney.