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Obama's Israel speech fodder for the presidential election

Though polling shows the president is still in good standing with Jewish voters, Republicans are using the speech to appeal to other pro-Israel voters, such as evangelical Christians.

May 22, 2011|By Peter Nicholas, Washington Bureau
  • President Obama meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office. Obama has called for a Middle East peace agreement based partly on boundaries in place before Israels territorial gains in the 1967 war.
President Obama meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu… (JIM YOUNG, REUTERS )

Reporting from Washington — Hours after President Obama gave a major speech on the Middle East, Rep. Michele Bachmann flooded Iowa with automated phone calls and posted an online petition calling his approach "an insult to Israel."

But Bachmann, a potential Republican presidential candidate, wasn't necessarily appealing to the state's tiny Jewish vote. Evangelical Christians were a richer target, voters who are staunchly pro-Israel and who might have been unnerved by Obama's call for a peace agreement based partly on boundaries in place before Israel's territorial gains in the 1967 war.

Bachmann's move underscores the shifting politics surrounding Israel. A presidential candidate seen as confrontational toward Israel once might have feared backlash from American Jewish voters. But Obama's standing in the Jewish community remains strong because he has answered a threshold question: He has satisfied most American Jews that he is friendly toward Israel and committed to its security, polling shows. He is unlikely to see a defection of Jewish voters or even an appreciable drop in Jewish fundraising support, according to pollsters and political consultants.

For Republican candidates, though, the dust-up over Obama's Middle East peace plans presents a fresh opportunity of a different sort. Portraying Obama as a fickle friend of Israel is a way to gain ground in primary races dominated by vocal, pro-Israel conservative voters.

Many evangelicals ardently support Israel because they believe God promised Jews their own state. Polls have shown they expect U.S. political leaders to support Israel.

With the fallout from Obama's speech Thursday still crystallizing, Israel is likely to be a focal point of the 2012 race in ways it hasn't been in decades.

Obama is proof of the durable bond between Jewish voters and Democratic presidential candidates. As a relative unknown in the 2008 election, he garnered 78% of the Jewish vote. That number tracks with Democrats' performance in races dating back to 1992. Political analysts say the president can expect to capture at least 60% of the Jewish vote next year, and possibly as much as 80%.

"It's a traditional liberal vote, and I just don't see this [Obama's speech] having much impact," Republican strategist Mark Corallo said.

Obama is nonetheless taking no chances. On Sunday, he'll deliver a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel lobbying group, where he is expected to once again proclaim fealty to Israel's security and stress the military ties between the two nations. Top campaign aides have been doing a bit of hand-holding, talking to Jewish supporters in the wake of Obama's address and reassuring them that the president's position won't compromise Israel's security.

Penny Pritzker, who was national finance chairwoman for Obama's 2008 campaign, said in an interview: "What's happening right now is people are trying to understand what the president is suggesting. And it's very positive what he's suggesting. He is saying we need direct negotiations to recommence and here are some ideas about how to approach that."

Conservative voices in the Jewish community are bristling over the speech. The Zionist Organization of America called on AIPAC to rescind the invitation to Obama. Even some of Obama's longtime political colleagues were unsettled.

"You can't unilaterally tell Israel you have to go back to '67," said Ira Silverstein, a Democratic Illinois state senator who once shared office space with Obama in the state Capitol. "He wasn't elected president of Israel. He was elected president of the United States."

Many mainstream Jewish voters seem more forgiving, rejecting the argument Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made in an Oval Office visit Friday that the prewar boundary lines are "indefensible."

They see Obama's speech as a reiteration of a long-held U.S. vision of a Middle East in which the Palestinians have their own state. Polling shows that American Jews are open to compromises in the interest of Middle East peace. A survey commissioned by the American Jewish Committee last fall showed that 62% of the Jewish community believes Israel should be willing to dismantle at least some of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank as part of an accord with the Palestinians.

"There has been an understanding for years that what was to be negotiated was a treaty based on the '67 borders with [land] swaps," said Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the New York-based Foundation for Ethnic Understanding. "So I wasn't surprised by his statement, though he is the first U.S. president to spell it out."

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