Analysis: Why Democrats fear losing the Jewish vote

By Kevin Bloom 16 September 2011

While he may have done more to secure Israel’s security than his predecessor, President Obama’s party machine has just initiated a somewhat panic-stricken campaign to retain the Jewish vote ahead of the 2012 elections. What’s behind the move? Could it have something to do with Bibi Netanyahu’s growing fascination with US partisan politics? By KEVIN BLOOM. 

Last week, precipitating an event that Middle East commentators had darkly foretold, a baying mob attacked the Israeli embassy in Cairo. Egyptian police stood by and watched as demonstrators hammered down the building’s concrete barriers, and many hours passed before a commando unit arrived on the scene to scatter the crowd with gunfire and rescue the six Israeli security personnel still inside. As all of this was going on, 80 diplomats and their families were being rushed under military escort to the Cairo airport, where an Israeli air-force plane was waiting to take them home. The event that the aforementioned commentators had foretold? The end of the peace accord struck between Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin in 1979. The consensus was that Israel had only ever made and maintained peace with dictators, and that after the Tahrir Square protests and the fall of Hosni Mubarak, its allies in the Arab world were about to become fewer.

As ever, the question of the powerful Jewish lobby in the United States was a simple one: what’s the president going to do about it? In this instance, the answer was, “quite a lot”. Not only did Barack Obama directly intervene when Binyamin Netanyahu was unable to raise Egyptian interim head-of-state Field Marshal Muhammad Tantawi on the phone, his administration pressured Egypt on the weekend to do more to protect Israel’s diplomats.

On two other fronts, Obama has recently showed – at great risk to American relations with a transforming Arab world – that his ties with Israel (or at least with the US Jewish lobby) remain strong. First, his State Department asked Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who had a few weeks earlier kicked the Israeli embassy out of his own country, to “cool it” on the escalating war talk. Second, he has promised to veto the Palestinian bid for statehood at the United Nations later this month, a bid that’s looking ever more likely to get the European vote.

Why, then, has a little-known Republican by the name of Bob Turner just won the 9th Congressional District of New York, one of the most Jewish seats in all of America, and one of the most pro-Israel? An editorial in the New York Times has suggested that the economic climate and Turner’s Democrat opponent, a supporter of gay marriage – the 9th Congressional District is famously ultra-Orthodox and socially conservative – may have had something to do with it, but that the “perception” of Obama as anti-Israel may have been the real cause.

Pointing to the US president’s shortcomings, the editorial further noted the following: “Mr Obama has not handled the Israeli-Palestinian issue adroitly. Palestinians certainly waited too long to begin negotiations, and Arab leaders failed to offer initiatives that might give Israel confidence that a serious deal was possible. But Mr Netanyahu has been the most intractable, building settlements and blaming his inability to be more forthcoming on his conservative coalition. Egged on by Congressional Republicans, he has sought to embarrass Mr Obama — astonishing behavior for so close an ally that does not serve his own country’s interest.”

And therein lies the rub. Netanyahu, fast losing friends in his own part of the world – as if he ever really had any – is trying to play the mafia don over in the United States too, by working that country’s increasingly partisan politics to his own advantage. It’s a dangerous game to play, not least because Obama, who far prefers a negotiated two-state settlement to a United Nations statehood decree, is the best friend he’s got. While the US president thinks, justifiably, that a UN paper declaration would change nothing on the ground, and while Netanyahu is just being his old venal and militaristic self, the fact of the matter is that on this supremely important point the two men agree.

That the Democratic Party has embarked on a publicity campaign to retain the Jewish vote ahead of next year’s presidential elections is revealing. According to another piece in the New York Times, the Democratic National Committee has established a Jewish outreach program, and is placing calls and sending emails to influential Jewish donors in an attempt to counteract the Republican narrative that Obama is anti-Israel.

Traditionally, Jews in America have voted Democrat; the loss of the 9th Congressional District is obviously a big concern for the Obama camp. Given its ultra-Orthodox majority the district is not representative of the majority of the demographic, but still, noted the Times, “American Jews are clearly less enchanted with Mr Obama than they were in 2008, when nearly 8 out of 10 voted for him (in a Gallup poll last July, the most recent month for which data was available, his approval rating was 60 percent). Jewish lawmakers have been warning the White House that this disaffection could hurt the president in turnout, fund-raising and enthusiasm.”

Is a significant percentage of the Jewish vote likely to cast its ballot for Rick Perry, Mitt Romney or Michele Bachmann? Unlikely. Seeing as only 10 percent of the minority group are ultra-Orthodox – and believe, like Perry and Bachmann, that the Old Testament is the supreme legal code on Earth – sanity is likely to prevail. Unless, of course, Netanyahu continues to act like a playground hothead and manages to convince enough liberal American Jews that the US president actually is hostile to the State of Israel’s interests. DM

Read more:

  • “Israel and New York’s Ninth District,” in the NYTimes;
  • “New York Jews vote Republican: World officially ending,” in the Washington Times;
  • “Seeing Ripple in Jewish Vote,” in the NYTimes.




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