Democrats fighting not to lose Jewish voters

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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The White House is pushing back against predictions that President Barack Obama’s Middle East policy will prompt many voters in the Jewish community to switch their vote to the GOP nominee in 2012.

“The president will do very well with Jewish Americans,” said Robert Wexler, a former Democratic representative from Florida.

“I don’t know if it will be 72 percent or 75 percent … [but] it will be a vast majority,” said Wexler, who now is the president of the Washington-based S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace.

The Democrats’ push-back features Wexler, Democratic National Committee chairwoman Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Alan Solow, a Chicago lawyer and Obama’s earliest and most prominent supporter in the Jewish community. The White House has joined the effort by posting a new page at the White House’s site titled, “President Obama: Advancing Israel’s Security and Supporting Peace.”

The push-back “is multifaceted through discussions on TV, speaking to Jewish organizations, though op-eds,” Wexler told TheDC. “All of these people are close friends and close associates and work with each other in a regular way,” he said.

The push-back follows the controversy over the president’s May 19 proposal to solve the 63-year-long struggle by Israel to win recognition and peace from the surrounding Arab states. In his speech, he said the United States wanted the parties to accept a border based on the 1967 truce lines, with some mutually-agreed swaps of territory.

The speech generated much opposition from Israel’s supporters, because it largely accepted a Palestinian negotiating position, and because it ignored the underlying disputes, such as the control of important sites in and around Israel’s capital of Jerusalem.

“1967 lines with agreed swaps means you’re saying to Israel that ‘You think you have the Western Wall [of the ancient Jewish temple in Jerusalem] as part of Israel, but we don’t … [and] you need to come up with some swaps that that Palestinians believe acceptable to keep the Western Wall in Israel,’” said Elliott Abrams, at the Council on Foreign Relations.

The deeper disputes include many Arabs’ reluctance to recognize a Jewish state on territory once ruled by Muslims, and many Arabs’ demand that Israel accept the return of the Arab community that fled during the Arab invasion of Israel in 1948. Fewer than one million Arabs fled in 1948, but they and their descendants now number between 4.5 million and 7.2 million.

The population of Israel comprises 5.8 million Jews and 1.6 million Arabs. The political dispute is especially sharp-edged because Palestinian-Arab groups celebrate the killing of many Israelis civilians, including a family of two adults and two children that were stabbed in the town of Itamar.

Obama’s speech showed his hostility to Israel, and prompted many American Jews to back away from Obama, or even to shift their support to the GOP, according to several board members at the Republican Jewish Coalition.

“I’ve been surprised by the negative reaction,” said Brad Wine, an RJC board member and a lawyer at Dickstein Shapiro in Washington D.C. “We see Jewish opinion leaders openly critical of the president.”

GOP activists don’t claim Obama’s policies will shift a majority of that Jewish vote, which went lopsidedly for Obama in 2008, by 78 percent to 21 percent. But a slice of that vote — mostly male or Orthodox — is more willing to walk away from their community’s traditional support for Democrats, said Jews who affiliate with the GOP.

Republicans have already won a majority of votes from the minority of Jews in the United States who belong to Orthodox congregations.

“It is no secret that whereas President Obama won a majority of the Jewish vote in 2008, the Orthodox community voted heavily for John McCain” by a margin of roughly three to one, said Nathan Diament, who heads the Institute for Public Affairs of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.

These days, he said, “the mood in the orthodox community is certainly of great concern” about Obama’s Middle East policy.

But these Orthodox Jews comprise only 10 percent of the U.S. Jewish population.

“It is too soon” to predict the scale of any shift to the GOP, said Abrams. “I don’t know whether ‘unease’ translates into a vote against him [because] history suggests that most Jews will find some excuse to vote Democratic.”

Still, even a shift of several percent in the Jewish population could matter in a close Florida election. Also, any shift could also hit Democratic donations hard. In May, for example, Haim Saban, a major Californian donor, suggested he would not give more money to Obama.

Any pullback by Jewish donors could add to the troubles facing Obama’s fundraisers. In several news articles, Democratic fundraisers have said wealthy donors are less generous this year than in 2008.

Wexler scoffed at claims that Jews will shift their political loyalties. “The anecdotal stuff is political nonsense … [Republicans say] every two years, certainly every four tears, that this is the year Jewish voters will desert the Democratic party … it doesn’t happen.”

“There is no trend that suggests that any significant change in the Jewish vote,” Solow said.

Yet Solow and Wexler also took time to argue that Obama has been protective of Israel. Obama has supported Israel militarily, economically and diplomatically, Wexler said. Obama does not accept the Arab claim that Palestinians should be allowed to move into Israel, and his ’67 lines with swaps’ policy will allow 80 percent of Israelis now living on land claimed by Palestinians to remain in their homes, he said.

The White House’s website makes many of the same points. “President Obama emphasized that a peace agreement must meet the … goal of two states for two peoples with Israel as a Jewish state and homeland for the Jewish people,” says the one-page site.

Obama “is absolutely a strong friend of Israel, and it is a complete mischaracterization to represent otherwise,” said Solow. “The positions that he has taken, including in his most recent speeches, are consistent with the historical American position and reflect full and complete support for Israel.”

Middle East politics are very complex, said Solow, “and it is easy for people to mischaracterize people, in this case, President Obama, for political gain. I believe that attempt will not be successful in the long run.”

Last year, Solow did criticize the administration’s policy against Israeli home-building in and around Jerusalem.

“That [policy] was not helpful, and did not make any sense,” he told TheDC. “I don’t think they have officially changed their position, but I think they have [now] placed less emphasis on that position,” he said.

Still, the push-back by the White House, Wexler and their allies, said Diament, shows that “there’s clearly a level of concern among Democrats.”

Wexler and his allies may also be too late, said Matt Brooks, chairman of the Republican Jewish Coalition. Because of Obama’s multiple speeches urging the 67 lines with swaps, and because of his repeated failure to address concerns voiced by Israel’s supporters, “much of this [anti-Israel] narrative may already be baked in the cake,” Brooks said.