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Obama Loses Jewish Backing on Israel

Wednesday, 28 April 2010 11:11 AM

In the recent diplomatic rift between Israel and the United States, Republicans see a chance to attract votes and contributions from a demographic group that has voted overwhelmingly for Democrats — Jewish Americans.

Meanwhile, the White House has launched a charm offensive to smooth over its relationship with the Jewish community after two of the most tense months in recent memory between Israel and the U.S.

President Obama and senior members of his team have emphasized the U.S. alliance with Israel. On a policy level, however, divisions appear to remain between Israel and the United States on construction in the eastern part of Jerusalem. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declined a request this month from Mr. Obama to freeze construction there.

House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican, said he has detected what he called "buyer's remorse" among Obama voters. Mr. Obama won 78 percent of the Jewish vote in 2008, and no Democratic presidential candidate since Jimmy Carter in 1980 has received less than 60 percent of the Jewish vote.

"I do think there is a sense of disbelief on the part of many in the American Jewish community after this administration's desire seemingly to pressure Israel in as forceful a way as possible while it is trying to solicit the support and friendship of countries that have not been allies of the United States," said Mr. Cantor, who is Jewish.

Noting the White House's charm offensive, he said, "First of all, actions speak louder than words. The administration can try to patch things up through letters. It is the policies that they are pursuing that are extremely troubling to the Jewish community.

"If this administration continues a path of hostility to Israel and their security, not only will our country suffer, but politically the administration will increase the likelihood that more Jewish voters will vote Republican."

In a letter last week to Alan Solow, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Mr. Obama stressed that U.S. presidents for the past 60 years have considered an Arab-Israeli peace to be a "national security interest."

The president added: "I also recognize that in order for any agreement to endure, peace cannot be imposed from the outside. It must be negotiated directly by the leaders who are required to make the hard choices and compromises that take on history."

Malcolm I. Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said in an interview Monday that "many people will want to see what the administration does before they will restore trust."

Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, echoed the sentiment.

"It is very important that you have the president, [senior White House adviser] David Axelrod, [Chief of Staff] Rahm Emanuel, [Secretary of State] Hillary Clinton and Gen. David Petraeus all go on record saying that 'the relationship between the United States and Israel is a strategic relationship,' especially in light of the public rift between Israel and the Obama administration," Mr. Foxman said.

"To what extent this is cosmetic, rather than substantive, time will tell," he added.

Icy relations between the Jewish state and the United States ensued in March when Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. visited Israel and the Israeli government announced plans for a housing development in a Jewish neighborhood in East Jerusalem. Palestinians consider the eastern part of the city, which Israel won in the 1967 Six-Day War, as the capital of a future Palestine.

Mr. Netanyahu apologized for the announcement and said he had not authorized new construction. Nonetheless, the White House took the opportunity to express its displeasure. Shortly after Mr. Biden returned from the Middle East, the State Department disclosed details of a tough conversation between Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Netanyahu. For six weeks, the Obama administration was publicly critical of Israel, making Mr. Netanyahu appear to be on the outs with Israel's most important ally.

The Associated Press reported Tuesday that municipal officials in Jerusalem said new construction has halted in the eastern part of the city.

Matthew Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said the diplomatic tension has led many Jewish Americans to consider voting Republican.

Mr. Brooks pointed to a survey taken of Jewish Americans this month by McLaughlin & Associates for the World Jewish Congress. It found that 42 percent of those polled would re-elect Mr. Obama; 46 percent said they would vote for someone else.

Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, discounted the poll. He noted that Democrat Ted Deutch, who won a special election in Florida's 19th Congressional District for the seat of Robert Wexler on April 13, received Jewish votes by the same wide margins as Mr. Wexler had.

"If Republicans, as they say every election cycle for at least 18 years, are correct that Jewish votes are turning to their party, you'd think they would see it in the last special election, which took place in the most heavily Jewish congressional district in the country," Mr. Forman said.

Still, Mr. Brooks said he is advising Republicans to make an issue of Israel in November.

"What we are advising Republicans in those races are to ask difficult questions to the Democrats running," he said. "Do you stand with Obama and his pressuring of Israel, or do you stand with the Jewish community? We are going to have it so Democrats are going to have [to] pick a side."

Rep. Eliot L. Engel, New York Democrat, who is Jewish, said there is concern in the Jewish community, but he does not think it has reached the point where Jewish voters will abandon Mr. Obama or the Democratic Party.

"I think people are watching and waiting and looking at the future, and people will be making judgments accordingly," Mr. Engel said. "There has been a lot of angst over what is regarded in many circles as needless clashing with the Netanyahu administration and with Israel, and let's hope this is a passing blip in an otherwise strong relationship."

Morris Amitay, former executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and founder of the Washington Political Action Committee, a pro-Israel PAC, said he was starting to see Jewish donors giving more money to Congress.

"I have seen people giving more money to the PAC because of concerns the administration is going south on Israel," he said. "I have had some people sending me a second check this year, saying they hope it does good with our friends in Congress because of the animosity from the White House toward Israel."

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Wednesday, 28 April 2010 11:11 AM
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