For Floridian Jews, Israel factors into primary

As Republicans cast votes in Florida primary, local Jews dissect candidates' positions toward the Jewish state.

Republican Newt Gingrich greets voters in Florida 390 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton)
Republican Newt Gingrich greets voters in Florida 390 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton)
HOLLYWOOD, Florida – As a registered Democrat, Harriette Moses was unable to vote Tuesday in Florida’s Republicansonly primary, but boy did she want to crash the party.
“This year I really wished I was in the Republican Party,” said the mother of three as she stood outside the polling station at Hollywood’s Young Israel synagogue, of which she is a member. “I very much do not want the current president. I’m not happy with what I see as his position towards Israel.”
Of the Republican candidates, Moses said she liked Mitt Romney, in part because “he’s publicly stated that he would do whatever he can to show support for Israel.”
She suggested that with a less brash style than Newt Gingrich, who has been duking it out with Romney for the lead in polls here, the former Massachusetts governor would be more effective at winning broad backing for his policies, including those toward Israel.
Sid Dinerstein, chairman of the Republican Party of nearby Palm Beach County, indicated that Moses is hardly alone in her preference. He said of Jewish Independents and Democrats who plan to break tradition and vote against Obama this year, Romney is the favorite.
“There are a lot of people that I know who have not registered Republican but who will not vote for President Obama,” he said. “They’re much more likely to [support] Mitt Romney than Newt Gingrich.”
Dinerstein said Romney’s image of moderation appeals to those voters, who see Gingrich as “a harsher personality.”
Like many others, they question Romney’s commitment to conservative positions on social issues, to which he has pledged adherence despite holding more moderate views when he was governor of Massachusetts.
“No one believes him,” said Dinerstein. “That helps him with this group.”
With only up to 20 percent of Florida’s approximately 600,000 Jews officially Republicans, according to Dinerstein, this group of GOP-leaning Democrats and Independents is also one the Obama campaign is most likely to be concerned about as it campaigns in the crucial swing state.
Among Jews who are registered Republicans and will almost certainly vote for the GOP nominee in the general election, Dinerstein said they do not seem to have a strong preference for Romney or Gingrich, the former speaker of the US House of Representatives.
Rick Santorum, former senator from Pennsylvania, and Texas Representative Ron Paul are also running but are not considered to have a significant chance of winning Tuesday’s vote.
“With Jewish Republicans,” Dinerstein said, “so long as the next president is not Barack Obama or Ron Paul, we’re fine.” Paul has turned off many Jewish voters by calling for cutting all foreign aid, including aid to Israel, opposing sanctions on Iran on free trade grounds, and generally articulating an isolationist foreign policy.
Dinerstein added, “If it’s Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich, there’s no issue with Israel because it would be taken care of” by both.
Ben Maximov, a Tel Aviv native who moved to the US 25 years ago and has voted Republican since becoming a US citizen, cast his ballot for Gingrich Tuesday, but said: “I will vote for whoever the Republicans choose.” He gave Obama’s “bias against Israel” as one of his main reasons for not supporting the president.
But Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz disputed the notion that Obama hasn’t been supportive of Israel.
“When it comes to Israel, we have only to look to the Israeli leadership and their commentary on President Obama’s remarkable record on Israel,” she said in response to a question from The Jerusalem Post Tuesday. “According to Ehud Barak, Israel has no greater friend... He has repeatedly said, as has President [Shimon] Peres, as has Prime Minister [Binyamin] Netanyahu, that our security relationship has never been stronger between the two countries.”
“The overwhelming majority of Jewish voters are Democrats,” said Wasserman Schultz, a Florida representative, who was visiting the Meyerhoff Senior Center to deliver a blistering attack on Romney’s stance on Medicare. “Because [Obama] has demonstrated in word and deed his strong support and commitment to the US-Israel relationship, I think he’ll enjoy the overwhelming support of Jewish voters here in Florida and across the country.”
Jay Homnick, a Republican Jewish activist from North Miami Beach, agreed that most Florida Jews would end up voting for Obama on Election Day in November.
“The senior citizens voting in Florida are Democratic voters,” he said. “If [the Democratic Party] would run Adolf Hitler, they’re going to vote for him.”
But Homnick predicted that instead of the 78% that backed him in 2008, according to exit polls, the numbers would be somewhere in the 60s this time, especially because younger Jews are more open to voting Republican.
“When the American president has dissed the prime minister of Israel a couple of times, that’s not going to endear him to Independents,” he said.
Homnick, who writes for several Conservative publications and has not endorsed a candidate, characterized both Romney and Gingrich as strong on Israel.
He pointed in particular to their performance at Thursday night’s debate in Jacksonville, where a Palestinian-American audience member asked what the candidates would do to bring peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
“You would expect politicians to pander,” Homnick said. “But both said the problems in the Middle East are the Palestinians’ fault.” He also pointed out that in that debate, Gingrich took one of the most aggressive stands on Israel – saying that on his first day in office he would issue an order to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem – something Romney has demurred from saying he would do.
“That’s pretty affirmative,” he said. “I was impressed by it.” He noted that while previous presidents from both parties have said they would make such a move, they never have.
“It would be a little harder [for Gingrich] to walk back from that,” Homnick said of his strong declaration during the debate.
But Gingrich’s pledge wasn’t enough to persuade Moses.
“I believe that he’d like to do it, but I don’t believe that he can do it,” she explained. “What candidates say in the campaign is not going to be what they do.”