Washington Watch: Are Democrats deserting Israel?

Israel’s problem – not just with Democrats or Americans but Europeans as well – isn’t the message but the policies of the current government and the arrogance of its leader.

US Congress. (photo credit: REUTERS)
US Congress.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
A new poll making headlines in Israel this week declares that the country “can no longer claim to have the bipartisan support of America” because Democratic elites have deserted the Jewish state.
How credible is this poll? Consider this: it was conducted by a highly partisan Republican pollster who surveyed 802 “highly educated, high income... opinion elites” – not rank and file or members of Congress – that he selected to measure partisan American attitudes toward Israel.
Not surprisingly, he also found that Republicans are increasingly enthusiastic in their backing for Israel.
The survey was commissioned by the Jewish National Fund (JNF). Why would a highly respected, presumably non-partisan organization like JNF order a survey of partisan attitudes toward Israel, and why not pick a pollster with a reputation for balance and non-partisanship? And why send him to Israel to brief political leaders and journalists about his findings? One likely answer: the chairman of JNF is Ronald Lauder, a longtime Republican who is remembered for taking out full-page newspaper ads attacking President Barack Obama for not being sufficiently supportive of the Netanyahu government. In the past five years alone he has given $843,200 to Republican candidates and SuperPACs, according to the Federal Election Commission.
FEC reports also indicate the president of JNF, Jeffrey E. Levine, gave $20,010 to the Democratic Party in 2011, but none since then.
All the more reason to treat this survey by Republican political consultant Frank Luntz as highly suspect.
That’s not to deny that there has not been a growing gap between Republicans and Democrats in their support for Israel over the past several years, but mostly it has nothing to do with “hostility” toward the Jewish state.
Luntz concedes “policy has something to do” with the drift but his prescription for closing the partisan gap – an “efficient, effective and unified PR campaign” – is insultingly simplistic and useless.
Israel’s problem – not just with Democrats or Americans but Europeans as well – isn’t the message but the policies of the current government and the arrogance of its leader, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has done more to isolate Israel than any of his predecessors.
Hawkish Israeli security “rhetoric” appeals to Republicans, Luntz notes, but he recommends the message for Democrats “underlin[e] Israel’s role in protecting human rights and promoting equality.”
He misses the message of his own findings. The bottom line is the policy and its implementation, and no amount of polishing by high-priced consultants can fix that.
Among Luntz’s findings: Three quarters of Democratic “opinion elites” believe Israel has “too much influence” on US foreign policy; almost half consider it to be a racist country; fewer than half believe Israel actually wants peace with the Palestinians and only 46 percent of Democrats vs. 88% of Republicans consider themselves “pro-Israel.”
Leave aside the matter of skewing the questions to produce a desired outcome, and look behind Luntz’s message.
“Israel has won the hearts and minds of Republicans in America while at the same time Israel is losing the Democrats,” the Republican pollster told The Times of Israel. “The Israeli government and US Jews have to focus on repairing relations with the Democrats.”
This is not a simple PR problem, as he suggests.
It is much more fundamental. It goes where Luntz and JNF and Lauder fear to tread: the prime minister’s doorstep.
No one has done more to drive Democrats away from Israel than Netanyahu. His partnership with the Republicans to undermine Obama, especially on Iran and peace with the Palestinians, has been a disaster for Israel’s longtime bipartisan support.
Many Democrats see in Netanyahu an ally who has no interest in acting like an ally.
Luntz contends nearly half of the Democrats say Israel is racist. He offers no comparison to how they see their own country or any other country. His finding reflects the feeling on the part of many African Americans that Netanyahu’s unconcealed animosity toward Obama and his congressional speech attacking the administration’s Iran policy as disrespecting the nation’s first black president.
Luntz’s findings reflect a GOP strategy designed to use Israel as a wedge issue to increase donations by wealthy single-issue pro-Israel campaign givers, not attract to the GOP Jewish voters, who remain firmly entrenched on the Democratic side of the partisan divide.
Republicans have raised a lot of Jewish money in their campaign to transform Israel into a partisan wedge issue, replete with painting Obama as an enemy of the Jewish state, and Netanyahu’s prominent role in that effort has helped turn away many Democrats.
No issue is more critical for Israel right now than the nuclear agreement with Iran, yet Netanyahu has squandered any influence he may have had in shaping the administration’s positions by mounting a full frontal assault on the integrity and intentions of the American president and by colluding with a GOP leadership determined to use the issue as one more weapon in their anti- Obama campaign.
Yair Lapid, leader of Yesh Atid and a former Netanyahu coalition partner, said the prime minister’s strident rhetoric and confrontational rather than cooperative strategy on the Iran issue has cost Israel influence in the negotiations.
“His approach led us to a situation in which the American administration isn’t willing to listen to our positions. His approach led not only the United States but also the other five powers involved in the negotiations... not to take into account Israel’s concerns over the deal, concerns which are right and justified.”
Luntz suggests the Democrats are deserting Israel, but a fair-minded analyst might conclude that the reverse may be more accurate.
Democrats voted for Obama in large numbers because he promised to end Bush’s costly and futile wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and now they see Israel’s government trying to push America into another war it doesn’t want and can’t afford.
Luntz found that fewer than half of what he called Democratic “opinion elites” believe Israel under Netanyahu wants peace with its neighbors.
I suspect the majority of Israelis feel the same.
Republicans may be having great success with their wedge strategy when it comes to pro-Israel big givers, but their efforts are unlikely to change many Jewish votes in 2016, and they are bad news for Israel. Netanyahu cannot afford his legacy to be Israel’s loss of bipartisan American support.