Israel Lobby's Last Minute GOP Push

The usual suspects have been warning President Barack Obama almost since Inauguration Day that there would be a literal price to pay if he assumed the role of "honest broker" in the Middle East.  Following Obama's 2009 Cairo speech and then his short-lived stand against Israeli settlements, Obama was warned by Democrats close to the lobby (including some inside the White House) that publicly disagreeing with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu would offend donors.  That would harm the Democrats in 2010 and doom his re-election chances in 2012.

These ominous predictions have only increased along with Republican chances of taking one or both houses of Congress this year. 

It is well-known in Israel that Netanyahu and his fellow right-wingers want to see the Democrats lose next Tuesday and then be rid of Obama in two years.  They assume that any Republican elected President in 2012 will not only let Israel do whatever it wants, he or she will have Israel's back when it comes to making concessions of any kind.  And Netanyahu's American cutouts are carrying the message.

It is not noteworthy when the single-issue lobbying organizations warn a president that pressuring Israel will mean political death.  That is what they do.

But it really says something when a mainstream multi-issue organization like the American Jewish Committee issues a poll just three weeks before the upcoming election that seems designed to politically damage the president.

In fact, the existence of the poll itself demonstrates the blatantly partisan tilt within the so-called mainstream Jewish organizations. (Of course, only a small percentage of Jews are members of these organizations but, invariably, they are the voices that are heard.)

The publication of the October poll is telling considering that the AJC had already issued its annual poll in March and, in the AJC's words, "this was the first time two surveys were commissioned in the same calendar year."

Why the second poll? It's a gift to the GOP to buy access after January, a contribution to the anti-Obama climate suggesting that even a staunchly Democratic constituency (one that Obama carried 78-22%) is turning against him.  Here are the first five paragraphs of the AJC press release touting the poll. It could have been issued by the Republican Party:

AJC Survey Shows Jewish Disapproval of President Obama Rising

October 12, 2010 - New York - Growing Jewish concerns over President Obama's handling of U.S.-Israel relations and the Iran nuclear threat are apparent in a just-completed American Jewish Committee (AJC) survey, the second national survey of American Jewish opinion conducted this year by the global advocacy organization.

Forty-nine percent of U.S. Jews approve, while 45 percent disapprove, of the Obama Administration's handling of U.S.-Israel relations, according to the new survey. AJC's earlier survey, conducted in March, found that 55 percent approved and 37 percent disapproved. In AJC's 2009 survey, 54 percent approved, and 32 percent disapproved.

In contrast, the view of how Prime Minister Netanyahu is handling of U.S.-Israel relations has improved. The new survey shows that 62 percent approve, and 27 percent disapprove. In March, 57 percent approved and 30 percent disapproved.

American Jews are somewhat less positive today than seven months ago in characterizing U.S.-Israel relations. While 7 percent answered "very positive" and 61 percent "somewhat positive," in March 10 percent were "very positive" and 63 percent "somewhat positive." And, in 2009, 11 percent were "very positive" and 70 percent said "somewhat positive."

Conducted annually since 1990, AJC's surveys often are cited as the most authoritative barometer of American Jewish opinion on a range of issues. This was the first time two surveys were commissioned in the same calendar year.

On Iran, American Jewish confidence in the president's approach continues to dip. Only 43 percent approve of the Obama administration's handling of the Iran nuclear issue, while 46 percent disapprove. In March, 47 percent approved and 42 percent disapproved. In 2009, 49 percent approved and 35 percent disapproved.

That is how the AJC reported its poll's findings.  But James D. Besser, the New York Jewish Week's long-time and expert reporter on the Jewish scene, wrote that the poll did not so much demonstrate that his handling of the Middle East was hurting Obama as that the economy was:

While Obama's performance on Israel-related issues was one factor in his drop, the biggest decline came on the question of his handling of the economy, mirroring national concerns that have boosted Republican candidates and triggered the Tea Party surge.

In fact, only 45 percent of Jewish respondents now say they approve of his handling of the economy - a 10-point drop from an AJC survey in March.

In other words, Jewish Americans — like their non-Jewish neighbors — are, above all, upset and angry about the economy.  Where they probably differ is that being overwhelmingly progressive on domestic issues, Jews are more likely to fault the Obama administration for spending too little to stimulate the economy, not too much. (Even very wealthy Jews tend to be New Deal-ish on economic issues — including a willingness to pay higher taxes and support government spending for the general good.)

In any case, contrary to what the AJC wants you to think, the reason for Jewish discontent with Obama (such as it is) is not that American Jews prefer Netanyahu to Obama or settlements to negotiations.  Or even, and this is the #1 issue for the AJC, that they want to unleash Israeli or American bombers on Tehran.  It is, in the immortal words of James Carville, "the economy, stupid."

Unfortunately, that is not the message the lobby wants Obama to hear.  It will tell him that the path to scoring 80% of the Jewish vote in 2012, as in 2008, runs through Jerusalem.  He must stop all pressure of any kind on Israel.  He must tolerate settlements with a smile.  He must mention "our ally, Israel" in every possible context.  And, if asked, he must give Israel permission to bomb Iran.  Above all, he must never, ever, suggest that Israel sign the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty.

Judging by the way things have gone down over the past two years, Obama is likely to be receptive to these arguments.  Although Obama knows (he has said so) that the Jewish community is not a single-issue bloc, he acts as if it is both obsessed with Israel and hawkish.  But even the AJC says that is not the case.

When asked about the issues that concern them most in the upcoming congressional elections, Israel was sixth in the "very important" category. Eighty-seven percent rated the economy "very important," 81 percent unemployment, 80 percent health care, 66 percent the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, 62 percent financial reform, with 61 percent saying Israel would be a very important factor.

In other words, the best way for Obama to hold on to Jewish support in 2012 is by simply pursuing a strong progressive Democratic agenda.  Helping Israel achieve peace would be icing on the cake.  But giving in to the naysayers — the same people who convinced Obama to back down on settlements — will have a political cost.  A strong president — and that's the only kind that gets re-elected — does not allow himself to be pushed around by special interests, including the "pro-Israel" lobby which will do everything it can to make him a one-termer. If Obama is to be re-elected, he has to stand tall and push back hard. A guy can dream, can't he?