Obama, Israel and the Jewish vote

Obama will undoubtedly continue to enjoy wide support among American Jewry, but this does not mean his Mideast policies will be good for Israel.

Obama AIPAC 311  (photo credit: Screenshot)
Obama AIPAC 311
(photo credit: Screenshot)
Judging from voting trends during the past three decades, Democratic President Barack Obama can rest assured that he will receive a majority of Jewish votes in the 2012 presidential election. Even Ronald Reagan, who was the only modern Republican presidential candidate to seriously challenge Democrats’ dominance among Jews, mustered just 39 percent of the Jewish vote in the 1980 elections. Subsequent Republican candidates have received anywhere from 11% to 24% of the Jewish vote. In the last elections, John McCain received 22% to Obama’s 78%.
That said, a report by Ben Smith in Politico at the end of June, which has generated quite a bit of attention, claims to have located a possible “tipping point” in American Jewish opinion. Obama’s falling out with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, during the latter’s May visit to Washington, purportedly has forced more center-left Jews to reconsider their political loyalties ahead of next year’s presidential race.
Particular note has been made of the controversy sparked by Obama’s statement during his speech before AIPAC that Israel should embrace the country’s 1949 armistice lines – which the US president referred to as the 1967 border with “land swaps,” as a basis for peace talks.
It might very well be an exaggeration, however, to claim that the US president is losing the Jewish vote over his policies vis-a-vis Israel.
As JTA’s Washington bureau chief Ron Kampeas blogged recently, 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 such as unemployment, house prices and health care, and international military conflicts in which US soldiers’ lives were under constant danger.
In addition, a recent Pew Research Center poll found that Americans in general (there was no breakdown for Jews) perceive the Obama administration to have a fundamentally positive approach to Israel. In a survey conducted just days after Obama’s May 19 State Department speech and his May 22 AIPAC address, 50% said the president was striking the right balance in the Middle East situation, while 21% said he favors the Palestinians too much.
A combination of factors seems to be coming together to ensure that the Obama administration will once again enjoy the vast majority of Jewish votes. And even if there is some slippage in swing states such as Florida, where Democrats need a super majority of the Jewish votes to counterbalance the traditionally conservative northern half of the state, this will likely have more to due with domestic or international issues unrelated to Israel.
Regardless of the Pew poll results, however, there may have been a turn for the worse in the White House’s position on Israel, as Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations, argued in an interview with The Jerusalem Post’s Herb Keinon that appeared in Friday’s paper.
A prime example pointing to such a shift is Obama’s refusal to reaffirm former president George Bush’s 2004 letter, endorsed in overwhelming majorities in both houses of Congress. A central element in the letter was its rejection of the notion that any Israeli-Palestinian agreement would include a full and complete return to the 1949 armistice lines. Obama, in contrast, has insisted on using the 1949 borders as the basis for talks, with land swaps to compensate the Palestinians for territories beyond the armistice lines that remain under Israeli control. In essence, this means Israel will be forced, according to Abrams, to “give up sovereign Green Line territory to keep the Kotel,” a “ridiculous” demand that seriously weakens the Israeli negotiating position.
Another example given by Abrams is the Obama administration’s different approach to the United Nations. The Bush administration cast nine vetoes blocking anti-Israel resolutions in the Security Council over an eight-year span, out of a conviction that the UN is inherently biased against Israel. In contrast, the Obama administration “is desperate to avoid vetoes,” Abrams said.
Abrams also implied that until now Obama might have been constrained by domestic politics and that in a second term he might feel freer to place more pressure on Israel. Perhaps this helps explain the Palestinians’ success in using their September statehood bid in the UN to put pressure on Israel.
Obama will undoubtedly continue to enjoy wide support among American Jewry. But it is a sobering thought, as the US celebrates July 4, that this does not mean his Mideast policies will be good for Israel.