The last time Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu shared each other’s company, you could say that the encounter did not go well—if by “not well” you mean abysmally. This was on May 20, the day after Obama gave his big speech on the Arab Spring, in which he unleashed a tsunami of tsuris by endorsing the use of Israel’s 1967 borders “with mutually agreed [land] swaps” as the basis for a two-state solution with the Palestinians. Obama and Netanyahu were seated in the Oval Office for what was supposed to be one of those photo ops devoted to roasting rhetorical chestnuts about the solidity of the U.S.-Israel alliance. Instead, while Obama watched silently, looking poleaxed, Netanyahu lectured him—for seven and a half minutes, on live television—about the folly, the sheer absurdity, of suggesting Israel ever return to what he called the “indefensible” 1967 lines.
Obama was furious with Netanyahu, who in choosing to ignore the crucial qualifier about land swaps had twisted Obama’s words beyond recognition—the kind of mendacious misinterpretation that makes the presidential mental. The seniormost members of Obama’s team felt much the same. Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Bob Gates, Bill Daley, the former Mideast-peace envoy George Mitchell: All were apoplectic with the prime minister, whose behavior over the past two years had already tried their patience. “The collective view here is that he is a small-minded, fairly craven politician,” says an administration source deeply involved in its efforts to push the parties to the negotiating table. “And one who simply isn’t serious about making peace.”
But this week, when Barack and Bibi arrive in New York for the 66th session of the United Nations General Assembly, they will not be going toe-to-toe but standing arm-in-arm. For months, the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, has been threatening to mount a bid for statehood recognition at the U.N. The Obama administration has been scrambling furiously to fashion a compromise with Abbas to forestall that application—at this writing, to no avail—and has pledged to veto the bid should it come before the Security Council.
For both Israel and the U.S., the timing could hardly be more miserable. With the Middle East apparently hurtling headlong into crisis, Israel finds itself increasingly isolated, beleaguered, and besieged: its embassy in Cairo invaded by Egyptian protesters, its relations with Turkey in tatters, its continued occupation of (and expansion of settlements within) the Palestinian territories the subject of wide international scorn. How wide? Wide enough that Abbas could credibly claim that 126 of the 193 U.N. member states support his statehood initiative. Yet despite the damage thwarting that bid might do to America’s standing in the region, the Obamans have never wavered in going balls-out for Israel.
And not for the first time, either. Again and again, when Israel has been embroiled in international dustups—over its attack last year on a flotilla filled with activists headed from Turkey to Gaza, to cite but one example—the White House has had Israel’s back. The security relationship between the countries, on everything from intelligence sharing to missile-defense development to access to top-shelf weapons, has never been more robust. And when the Cairo embassy was seized and Netanyahu called to ask for Obama’s help with rescuing the last six Israelis trapped inside the building, the president not only picked up the phone but leaned hard on the Egyptians to free those within. “It was a decisive moment,” Netanyahu recalled after the six had been freed. “Fateful, I would even say.”
All of which raises an interesting, perplexing, and suddenly quite pressing question: How, exactly, did Obama come to be portrayed, and perceived by many American Jews, as the most ardently anti-Israel president since Jimmy Carter?
This meme, of course, has been gathering steam for some time, peddled mainly by right-wing Likudophiles here and in the Holy Land. But last week, it took center stage in the special election in New York’s Ninth Congressional District, maybe the most Jewish district in the nation and one held by Democrats since 1923. When the smoke cleared, the Republican had won—and Matt Drudge was up with a headline blaring REVENGE OF THE JEWS.
Obama’s people deny up and down that the loss of a seat last occupied by Anthony Weiner portends, well, pretty much anything for 2012. But the truth is that they are worried, and worried they should be, for the signs of Obama’s slippage among Jewish voters are unmistakable. Last week, a new Gallup poll found that his approval rating in that cohort had fallen to 55 percent—a whopping 28-point drop since his inauguration. And among the high-dollar Jewish donors who were essential to fueling the great Obama money machine last time around, stories of dismay and disaffection are legion. “There’s no question,” says one of the president’s most prolific fund-raisers. “We have a big-time Jewish problem.”
The sources of that problem are many. In a way, history has been cruel to Obama, forcing him to succeed the wrong Bush—the one whose support for Israel, unlike that of his father, was uncritical to the point of blindness. Obama’s team has made its share of errors in the conduct of its diplomacy and in allowing misperceptions to take hold: that its tough-love approach to Israel has been all the former and none of the latter; that its demands on the Palestinians have been either negligible or nonexistent. And many Jewish voters, like those Wall Street financiers (and, to be sure, the overlap between those groups isn’t trivial) who flocked to Obama and were then chagrined when he called them out as “fat cats,” have all too often focused more on the president’s words than his deeds—and come away with the impression that he doesn’t seem to “feel Israel” in his bones.
For Obama, such assessments would be funny if they weren’t so frustrating and absurd; and for the Jews who know him best, they are simply mystifying. In the last days of the 2008 campaign, the former federal judge, White House counsel, and Obama mentor Abner Mikva quipped, “When this all is over, people are going to say that Barack Obama is the first Jewish president.” And while that prediction has so far proved to be wildly over-optimistic, there is more truth in it than meets the eye.
In attempting to apply tough love to Israel, Obama is trying to make a stalwart ally see that undertaking the painful and risky compromises necessary for peace with the Palestinians is the only way to preserve the Zionist dream—which is to say a future as a state both Jewish and democratic. His role here is not that of the callous assailant but of the caring and sober brother slapping his drunken sibling: The point is not to hurt the guy but to get him to sober up.
The suspicions regarding the bone-deepness of Obama’s bond with Israel were present from the start, and always rooted in a reading of his background that was as superficial as it was misguided. Yes, he was black. Yes, his middle name was Hussein. And yes, in his time in Hyde Park, his friends included Palestinian scholars and activists, notably the historian Rashid Khalidi. But far more crucial to Obama’s makeup and rise to prominence were his ties to Chicago’s Jewish milieu, whose players, from real-estate powerhouse Penny Pritzker to billionaire investor Lester Crown, were among his chief supporters and financial patrons. In 2008—after herculean efforts by his campaign to reassure the Jewish Establishment that he was, er, kosher and stamp out the sub-rosa proliferation of the lie that he is a Muslim—he won 78 percent of the Jewish vote, four points higher than John Kerry’s total four years earlier.
This background meant that, although Obama was hardly an old hand on Israel when he became president, he was well attuned to the Jewish community and its views. “With the kind of exposure he had to Jewish backers, Jewish thinkers, in Illinois,” says deputy national-security adviser Ben Rhodes, “he came into office with a deeper understanding of Jewish culture and Jewish thought than, I would argue, any president in recent memory.”
Like all those presidents, Obama placed a high priority on pursuing a deal to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Where he departed from his predecessors was on a number of premises. When there were differences between America and Israel, Obama wanted to address them: “We’re not gonna be saying one thing in public and another in private,” he told his team. And in the effort to bring the parties to the negotiating table, pressure would be applied equally to both sides.
Obama also believed that it was critical to begin the process immediately; thus on his third day in office did he name Mitchell to his post. “Our view of Bush was, yeah, Annapolis was great, but he started in his last year in office, and that was just too late,” recalls former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel. “So our theory coming in was that [Obama] was gonna put his foot on the gas from day one.”
The problem with that theory was the situation on the ground: During Obama’s transition, the Israelis and the Palestinians had been at war in Gaza. So Mitchell began traveling in the region, searching for a series of measures that might change the climate sufficiently to get the two sides talking again. What he heard uniformly from the Arab states was that a halt to the construction of Israeli settlements was key. “The idea came from the Palestinians first and the rest of the Arabs second—and I mean all of them,” says Jonathan Prince, a senior State Department aide who worked with Mitchell. “We were told it was the only way to give the Palestinians political cover to get them back to the negotiating table.”
The American push for a settlement freeze would be the first flash point in Obama’s relations with Israel and also a turning point in his standing with Jewish voters at home. With Netanyahu having just reassumed the prime-ministership in a coalition government that included several ultraconservative parties, he resisted Obama’s call for a freeze. American Jews, meanwhile, saw the administration as aggressively pressuring Israel but treading softly on the Palestinians. In combination with its policy of engagement with Iran, this fostered the impression that Obama’s stance amounted to punishing America’s truest friend in the region while rewarding its—and Israel’s—most lethal foe.
Obama’s advisers rightly point out that engagement with Iran was never any kind of reward; it was a way of reframing the issue, of putting the focus on Iran’s bad behavior and rallying international support for taking action against the rogue state—which, of course, later occurred with the imposition of U.N. sanctions.
Regarding the call for a settlement freeze, the Obamans defend the decision without a trace of apology. Beyond the political rationale behind the demand, the settlements have been deemed illegal by the International Court of Justice, are supported by no country in the world, and have been opposed by every American president since Richard Nixon. “We were enunciating twenty-plus years of U.S. policy,” observes Emanuel. “The difference was we weren’t just lip-synching it.”
Equally important, Obama’s advisers argue, is that the idea that the administration demanded little of the Palestinians is simply false. “I called it synchronized swimming,” recalls Prince. “The Israelis would do settlements, the Palestinians would do some stuff on incitement [of violence against Israel] and security, and other Arab states would undertake a variety of measures that would be steps to normalization. It could be reopening trade offices. It could be allowing overflights. It could be opening direct cell-phone connections. All stuff the Israelis said they really wanted. We spent many more hours in meetings with Arabs about Arab steps than we did with the Israelis. We had equally tough conversations with Arabs; the president had some hard meetings. But that didn’t get reported.”
Lazy journalism can be cited for the lack of coverage of those efforts, but Obama and his people bear fault, too. “Because no administration had been that clear and unambiguous with Israel on settlements, that was news,” says Emanuel. “But there was a sense that it was one-sided. We had an obligation—and this is where we deserve a yellow card—to explain what we were doing with the Palestinians or Arabs, to put more air in the tires on that side. Not tone down what we said on settlements, but work harder so there was more recognition of the parity that existed with the Arab violations.”
Another blunder, and not a minor one, made by the administration revolved around Obama’s vaunted speech to the Muslim world in Cairo that June—which more than a few Jews perceived as coming at the expense of Israel, especially when Obama failed to visit Jerusalem on the same trip (or at any time thereafter). “We made a mistake,” admits one senior administration foreign-policy adviser. “Nobody thought of it as a big deal at the time, but, I mean, you’re in the neighborhood, you’re right down the street, and you don’t stop by for coffee?”
By the end of 2009, the cumulative effect of these episodes was plain. On the right, the claim that Obama had shown his true colors was de rigueur; as the conservative pundit John Podhoretz put it, “The turn against Israel that so many predicted during the 2008 campaign is coming to pass.” Among Jewish voters more broadly, Obama’s approval ratings had plunged by more than twenty points. In the 21 months since then, his pursuit of peace has run through the usual stop-and-start cycles, but three things have stayed constant: on the Palestinian side, a partner unable to deliver; on the Israeli side, a partner unwilling to; and in the Israeli prime minister’s office, a man with whom Obama’s relationship started off scratchy—and went downhill from there.
To Netanyahu’s way of thinking, he had reason to be wary of his counterpart even before they first met. In 2008, Obama had declared to a campaign crowd in Ohio, “There is a strain within the pro-Israel community that says unless you adopt an unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel that you’re anti-Israel.”
Putting aside the substantive validity of the argument, it’s not difficult to imagine how that sounded to Netanyahu, whose ascension to the prime-ministership for the second time both coincided with and augured moments of dark existential crisis in Israel. On one hand, there was Iran, making rapid advances toward nuclear capability. On the other, there was Hamas, which in the years after Ariel Sharon had withdrawn from Gaza had turned the place into a staging area for rocket fire into Israel—dampening the Israeli public’s appetite for further territorial compromise with the Palestinians. And then there was Netanyahu’s surpassingly volatile governing coalition, which was held together by far-right nationalist, fundamentalist, and even proto-fascistic elements (cf. Avigdor Lieberman).
It was Netanyahu’s coalition partners that provoked the great contretemps of 2010 with the U.S.: the cold-cocking of Joe Biden. Arguably the administration’s staunchest Zionist and a longtime friend of Netanyahu’s—a signed photo of Biden from his Senate days sits on Bibi’s desk—the vice-president arrived in Israel that March to promote the “proximity” peace talks that the sides had just agreed to undertake. There he was ambushed with a surprise announcement by the Interior Ministry, which is controlled by the fundamentalist Shas Party, of the building of new settlement blocs in contested East Jerusalem. Netanyahu was apparently as blindsided as Biden was.
The Obamans were livid at Biden’s flagrant ill-treatment. Hillary Clinton administered a now-famous 43-minute telephonic blistering to Netanyahu, and, according to Jeffrey Goldberg on Bloomberg.com, Bob Gates “told several people that if he had been Biden, he would have returned to Washington immediately and told the prime minister to call Obama when he was serious about negotiations.”
Thirteen days later, Netanyahu traveled to Washington and met with Obama at the White House. The president expressed his anger about the Biden incident. Within days, media outlets around the world were filled with Israeli-sourced stories about Obama’s rudeness to Netanyahu: that there had been no photo op, no joint statement, and that 44 had walked out of their meeting and left Bibi stewing in a West Wing meeting room while the president had dinner with his family. Were the stories true? Obama’s people dispute the details. But the damage to his reputation with many American Jews had already been done; the “snub” to Netanyahu took its place atop the growing list of administration affronts to Israel.
It’s often said that Netanyahu has an exquisitely calibrated feel for American politics and great savvy in working its press corps. Both are true and both have helped him enormously in resisting the pressure brought to bear by Team Obama. But the administration has also sabotaged itself, in particular by frequently failing to speak with one voice to Israel.
Through much of 2009 and 2010, Obama’s people were divided over just how hard to lean on Netanyahu when it came to negotiating with the Palestinians. On one side were many central figures who favored the tough-love approach: Obama, Clinton, Mitchell, Emanuel. On the other were Dennis Ross, the president’s special assistant on the Middle East, and Tom Donilon, his national-security adviser. “The underlying argument of Dennis and Tom was that you’ll never get the Israelis to do anything by pushing them,” says one official. “The contrary argument is, there’s no evidence you’ll ever get them to do anything without pushing them.”
For Netanyahu, however, the internal division within the administration was a gift. Wary of Emanuel and senior adviser David Axelrod—Netanyahu was quoted in the Israeli press calling them “self-hating Jews,” though he later denied it—he turned to those in the White House who were more sympathetic. “What you had was Bibi doing this go-to-mommy, go-to-daddy thing,” says the same official. “Which meant there was never a real, effective, tough negotiation with Israel, because every time you tried to say something tough, he’d go to someone else who would tell him, ‘Don’t worry about it.’ ”
Netanyahu’s penchant for forum shopping goes a long way toward explaining the bilateral conniption that erupted this past May. After briefly negotiating face-to-face last fall, the Israelis and the Palestinians were again at loggerheads. For weeks this spring, the administration debated internally how to modify U.S. policy in light of that breakdown as well as the dawning of the Arab Spring and the wave of instability engulfing the region.
With the new Republican Congress having invited Netanyahu to address a full joint session—making him only the fourth foreign leader (along with Yitzhak Rabin, Nelson Mandela, and Winston Churchill) to have been granted the privilege more than once—Obama was planning a major speech on the Middle East ahead of Bibi’s. The question was whether the president should lay out a framework for a two-state solution, including principles on borders, security, Jerusalem, and refugees. Clinton and Mitchell were in favor of including all four; Ross and Donilon were in favor of including none, and until a few days before the speech, it appeared that they would have their way. But in the end, Obama opted for two: principles on borders and security.
Everyone knew that the language on borders would stir up a hell of a fuss, though in truth there was nothing terribly controversial about what Obama said. The 1967 lines plus land swaps has been for decades the geographic template for any plausible two-state solution, and was employed (almost fruitfully) by Clinton, Ehud Barak, and Yasser Arafat in 2000 and (again, almost fruitfully) by Bush, Ehud Olmert, and Abbas in 2008. The trouble was that its explicit embrace by Obama caught Netanyahu by surprise, almost certainly because Dennis Ross had assured him privately that it wouldn’t be in the speech.
Netanyahu threw a nutty. Before he departed Israel for Washington, his office issued a statement saying that the “Prime Minister expects to hear a reaffirmation from President Obama of U.S. commitments made to Israel in 2004 … commitments [that] relate to Israel not having to withdraw to the 1967 lines.” The statement was extraordinary on multiple levels: in its sheer presumptuousness (“expects”?); in its willful misreading of Obama’s words (ignoring the part about land swaps); and in its total neglect of the many hard-line pro-Israel positions the president had advanced, including a scornful rejection of the Palestinian statehood bid at the U.N., sharp criticism of Israel-denying Hamas, skeptical questioning of its new alliance with Israel-accepting Fatah, and harsh condemnation of Iran and Syria.
The next day, Netanyahu delivered his on-camera lecture to Obama. What enraged the president and his team wasn’t the impudence on display; they could live with that. It was the dishonesty at the heart of the thing. “I’ve been in more than one meeting with Bibi where he used the same language to describe the outlines of a deal,” one official says. “It’s outrageous—attacking the president for something he didn’t say, claiming he was putting Israel’s security at risk for stating out loud a position Bibi himself holds privately.”
But Netanyahu knew he could get away with it—so staunch and absolute is the bipartisan support he commands in the U.S. Garishly illuminating the point, on the night before his speech to Congress, the prime minister attended the annual AIPAC policy conference in Washington, where he was the headline speaker at the event’s gala banquet. Before he took the stage, three announcers, amid flashing spotlights and in the style of the introductions at an NBA All-Star game, read the names of every prominent person in the room, including 67 senators, 286 House members, and dozens of administration and Israeli officials, foreign dignitaries, and student leaders. (The roll call took half an hour.) When Harry Reid spoke, he obliquely but unambiguously chastised Obama for endorsing the use of the 1967 lines as the basis for a peace deal: “No one should set premature parameters about borders, about building, or about anything else.” The ensuing ovation was deafening—but a mere whisper compared with the thunderous waves of applause that poured over Netanyahu.
The next day came his speech to Congress, in which he spelled out demands that were maximal by any measure: recognition by the Palestinians of Israel as a Jewish state as a precondition for negotiations, a refusal to talk if Hamas is part of the Palestinian side, an undivided Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and absolutely no right of return for Palestinian refugees. Taken as a whole, his whirlwind Washington visit provided a strong dose of clarity: With Barak having moved his newly formed Independence Party into Netanyahu’s governing coalition, its new stability has reduced to near zero the incentives for him to take the risks required for peace.
In the eyes of some observers, Netanyahu’s performance over those days suggested something else: that he was taking sides in the 2012 race. As Time’s Joe Klein sharply noted, Netanyahu “has now, overtly, tossed his support to the Republicans.” With cover from Bibi, Mitt Romney pronounced that Obama had “thrown Israel under the bus.” Michele Bachmann tweeted that his “call for 1967 borders will cause chaos, division & more aggression in Middle East and put Israel at further risk.” Tim Pawlenty (remember him?) called Obama’s policy “a disaster waiting to happen.” And Ron Paul declared, “Unlike this president, I do not believe it is our place to dictate to Israel how to run her affairs.”
So much pandering, so little time! Republicans sucking up to Israel, and by extension Jewish voters, is nothing new; and in the past, it has come to naught. Might this election be different? Some political professionals think so. The perception of Obama as harboring antipathy to Israel, they argue, makes 2012 a ripe opportunity for the right Republican to swipe a larger than usual share of Jewish votes and/or pick the Obama campaign’s pocket. Skeptical? I would be, too, except for one thing: the sight of the Obamans scrambling to make sure it doesn’t happen.
Exactly one month after his Oval Office awkwardfest with Netanyahu, Obama made the mile-and-a-half trip from the White House to the Mandarin Oriental Hotel to have dinner with several dozen wealthy Jews. His appearance had twin objectives: to rake in more than $1 million and to calm their jangled nerves. Unlike many conservative Jews, the big-ticket Democrats in the room, who had paid $25,000 to $35,800 a head to be there, didn’t believe that Obama was hostile to Israel. Yet it’s fair to say they had their share of qualms and a ton of questions.
Obama fielded them all. With the press in the room, his statements were conventionally bromidal: “The most important message I have … is that even as we try to manage what is going to be a very difficult and challenging situation over the next twelve months, the next 24 months, the next decade, that one inviolable principle will be that the United States and Israel will always be stalwart allies and friends. That bond isn’t breakable.” Behind closed doors, his answers were more nuanced, but still designed to soothe—especially regarding his relations with Netanyahu. You can’t ask me to agree with everything the government of Israel is doing, Obama argued, since not everyone in Israel agrees with what the government is doing.
Obama won’t be alone in making this argument to Jewish donors. In addition to deploying Axelrod and DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, his campaign has hired an official outreach director to try to fix its Jewish problem: Ira Forman, the former head of the National Jewish Democratic Council. Forman is known for an encyclopedic knowledge of Jewish politics and a history in waging trench warfare against Republican Jewish groups. But none of that will prepare him for the job he is taking on. “A lot of what he’ll be doing is coaxing and persuading,” says a Jewish Obama megabundler. “A lot of people who raised a ton of money for the president last time are very short on enthusiasm for doing it again.”
The hiring of Forman is a tacit acknowledgment that the White House has badly handled the continual care and feeding required to keep major donors sweet—and all the more so in this case. The first White House liaison to the community was Susan Sher, who at the time was chief of staff to Michelle Obama. “Lovely woman, but she knew nothing about Israel,” says an Obama bundler, who some time ago attended a dinner with Sher and a clutch of A-list tribesmen: Mort Zuckerman, HBO co-chief Richard Plepler, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen. “It was kind of insulting to have this woman talking to these people who know this issue backward and forwards. And then there was no follow-up. Nothing.”
Both the nature and scale of Obama’s Jewish problem—at least where donors are concerned—are tough to pin down. A recent poll by the Republican firm McLaughlin & Associates found that among Jewish donors who gave to Obama in 2008, just 64 percent have already donated or plan to donate to him this time. Complicating the picture is the fact that Jewish buckrakers cite a variety of complaints with Obama: Some object to his rhetoric on Wall Street, some to his economic policies, and some to his handling of Israel. Then there’s the nature of fund-raising on behalf of an incumbent, which allows for much higher donations to the national party ($30,800) than to the campaign itself ($5,000). “Because you can raise so much from fewer people, it can mask a falloff in the number of donors,” says another bundler. “The president’s totals are healthy now, but you won’t know if you have a problem until later.”
Campaign coffers are one thing, albeit of huge importance for an incumbent who plans on filling them with roughly $1 billion. But the ballot box is quite another. And here it is easy enough to minimize the potential impact of Obama’s Jewish problem—or at least it was, until NY-9.
Not that Obama’s surrogates aren’t giving it the old college try. Within hours of Bob Turner’s victory over David Weprin, Wasserman Schultz—whose congressional district in South Florida is replete with Jews—was doling out the party line. “This is a special election that is purely reflective of who showed up to the polls and the makeup of the district,” she told the Washington Post, pointing in particular to its heavy concentration of Orthodox Jews. “There isn’t any comparison between districts like mine and New York 9.”
No doubt it is true that the district that was once the seat of Weiner, Chuck Schumer, and Geraldine Ferraro is unusual (and, as that list suggests, not just demographically). Not only is it roughly one-third Jewish, but of those Jews, roughly a third are indeed Orthodox. And Orthodox Jews are, to put it mildly, no one’s idea of a swing-voter group; instead they have become reliably Republican. (Among the Orthodox, a lowly 14 percent would reelect Obama.) Which would strongly suggest that the district is no coal mine, and its Jews are not canaries.
On the other hand, thanks in large part to the indefatigable Ed Koch, who endorsed Obama in 2008 but has now become one of his loudest (and loopiest) critics on Israel, the NY-9 election was framed to an unusual extent as a referendum not just on Obama but on his supposed betrayal of the chosen people. All over TV and the web was Koch, doing a squawky imitation of Romney, saying that the “Obama administration is willing to throw Israel under the bus in order to please the Muslim nations.” And, as state GOP chair Ed Cox pointed out to Politico’s Ben Smith, Koch’s appeal wasn’t to the Orthodox but to, in Smith’s paraphrase, “a still-more-sizable population of non-Orthodox Jews in old-line neighborhoods like Forest Hills.” Who, in fact, aren’t all that different from the older Jews in Wasserman Schultz’s district.
Even in the face of the most pessimistic (for Obama) reading of NY-9, Democrats will comfort themselves with two facts. The first is that, for all the outsize attention they command—and the earsplitting volume of the collective megaphone they wield—Jews make up about 2 percent of the national electorate. Too small a proportion, that is to say, to matter much to the overall popular vote.
Yet presidencies are not won nationally, but state by state (hello, Electoral College!). And there are at least two critical swing states in which the Jewish vote is large enough to be pivotal. The most obvious is Florida, where Jews make up about 5 percent of the electorate. But they also account for 4 percent of the vote in Pennsylvania, which Kerry won in 2004 by fewer than 200,000 votes. Without both of these states in his column, Obama will find it punishingly hard to be reelected.
The second ostensibly comforting fact for Democrats has to do with the trend lines of recent presidential-election history: Obama’s 78 percent of the Jewish vote, Kerry’s 74 percent, Al Gore’s 79 percent, Clinton’s 78 and 80 percent in 1996 and 1992, respectively. The implication here is that, in the end, the Jews will come home to Obama—mainly because they are overwhelmingly liberal and have nowhere else to go. And chances are this will prove true. But it’s worth pointing out that the last presidential incumbent who was thoroughly stigmatized, fairly or not, as being anti-Israel was Jimmy Carter—who in 1980 claimed just 45 percent of Jewish votes, with 15 percent going to John Anderson and the rest, 39 percent, to Ronald Reagan.
The trouble for Republicans is that, in the extant crop of candidates, there is no one who bears even a passing resemblance to Dutch. Though Rick Perry is as avidly pro-Israel as any politician alive—“If you’re our friend, we are with you,” he says. “I’m talking about Israel. Come hell or high water, we will be standing with you!”—his positions on almost every other issue are anathema to virtually every Jew to the left of Eric Cantor. And Perry’s theocratish tendencies have been criticized even by some who are pretty far right; the Christian rally he held in Houston not long before jumping into the race, “The Response,” was derided by Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League as a “conscious disregard of law and authority” because of the way it traversed the spheres of church and state.
Mitt Romney is an entirely different case. Within the Republican donor class, Romney is the strong favorite. He has actively courted the AIPAC crowd, staking out hawkish positions on Iran and pillorying Obama on Israel. The day before he opened his Florida headquarters earlier this month, Romney dropped in on a local AIPAC meeting in Tampa and was greeted with a standing O. But when it comes to winning over independent Jews or queasy Democratic ones, Romney may have done too effective a job in transforming himself from a pro-choice, pro-gay-rights moderate into a more conventionally conservative candidate. “He’s a phony,” a cheeky Democratic operative notes. “But for a lot of Jews, he may turn out to be just a little too convincing.”
Regardless of how Romney or Perry would play among Jewish donors and voters, both would likely make Obama’s approach to Israel a big part of a general-election campaign. “Israel,” writes Marc Tracy on the Jewish-life website Tablet, “is the easiest way to come from the right and cast Obama as a dove; as out-of-step with American values; as otherwise untrustworthy on foreign and national-security affairs. Obama can’t, after all, be soft on Al Qaeda—he killed Osama bin Laden. He can’t be soft on dictators—the Arab Spring happened on his watch. He can’t be lacking in experience—he has been commander-in-chief these past years. He wasn’t coddling Pakistan or China or Russia, and he didn’t normalize relations with Cuba. But on Israel (and, by extension, Iran), Obama can be effectively painted … as having not stood up for democratic friends against evil foes.”
This argument may or may not prove effective, but either way, it’s perfect bullshit—as the administration’s hell-bent efforts to head off the Palestinian bid for statehood at the U.N. amply demonstrates. The evil foe in this case, to be clear, isn’t Abbas and the Palestinians. It is anything that poisons the prospects for peace, which the White House justifiably believes granting full statehood or even observer-state status in this way would likely do: by emboldening the Palestinians and making the Israelis feel cornered; by pushing both parties into the positions, in other words, in which they tend to behave worst. Israel would impose punitive measures in the West Bank. Congress would cut off funding for the Palestinian Authority, possibly causing it to collapse. Violence would escalate. Talks would be impossible. Total nightmare.
Obama is under no illusions about the short-term prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace. The convulsions rippling across the region pose gargantuan complications. So does the alliance between Fatah and Hamas; in his own speech at AIPAC in May, Obama affirmed that “no country can be expected to negotiate with a terrorist organization sworn to its destruction.” But equally problematic is Netanyahu, whose consistent failure to rise to the occasions presented him over the past years put him in a position to adopt as his own the tagline that the great Israeli diplomat Abba Eban famously applied to the Palestinians: that they never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.
The premise of Obama’s approach to Israel all along has been straightforward. Given the demographic realities it faces—the growth of the Palestinian population in the territories and also of the Arab population in Israel itself—our ally confronts a fundamental and fateful choice: It can remain democratic and lose its Jewish character; it can retain its Jewish character but become an apartheid state; or it can remain both Jewish and democratic, satisfy Palestinian national aspirations, facilitate efforts to contain Iran, alleviate the international opprobrium directed at it, and reap the enormous security and economic benefits of ending the conflict by taking up the task of the creation of a viable Palestinian state—one based, yes, on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed upon land swaps, with East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital.
The irony is that Obama—along with countless Israelis, members of the Jewish diaspora, and friends of Israel around the world—seems to grasp these realities and this choice more readily than Netanyahu does. “The first Jewish president?” Maybe not. But certainly a president every bit as pro-Israel as the country’s own prime minister—and, if you look from the proper angle, maybe even more so.