By Ben Smith
David Ainsman really began to get worried about President Barack Obama’s standing with his fellow Jewish Democrats when a recent dinner with his wife and two other couples – all Obama voters in 2008 – nearly turned into a screaming match.
Ainsman, a prominent Democratic lawyer and Pittsburgh Jewish community leader, was trying to explain that Obama had just been offering Israel a bit of “tough love” in his May 19 speech on the Arab Spring. His friends disagreed – to say the least.
One said he had the sense that Obama “took the opportunity to throw Israel under the bus.” Another, who swore he wasn’t getting his information from the mutually despised Fox News, admitted he’d lost faith in the president.
If several dozen interviews with POLITICO are any indication, a similar conversation is taking place in Jewish communities across the country. Obama’s speech last month seems to have crystallized the doubts many pro-Israel Democrats had about Obama in 2008 in a way that could, on the margins, cost the president votes and money in 2012 and will not be easy to repair. (See also: President Obama’s Middle East speech: Details complicate ‘simple’ message)
“It’s less something specific than that these incidents keep on coming,” said Ainsman.
The immediate controversy sparked by the speech was Obama’s statement that Israel should embrace the country’s 1967 borders, with “land swaps,” as a basis for peace talks. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seized on the first half of that phrase and the threat of a return to what Israelis sometimes refer to as “Auschwitz borders.” (Related: Obama defends border policy)
Obama’s Jewish allies stressed the second half: that land swaps would – as American negotiators have long contemplated – give Israel security in its narrow middle, and the deal would give the country international legitimacy and normalcy.
But the noisy fray after the speech mirrored any number of smaller controversies. Politically hawkish Jews and groups such as the Republican Jewish Coalition and the Emergency Committee for Israel pounded Obama in news releases. White House surrogates and staffers defended him, as did the plentiful American Jews who have long wanted the White House to lean harder on Israel’s conservative government.
Based on the conversations with POLITICO, it’s hard to resist the conclusion that some kind of tipping point has been reached.
Most of those interviewed were center-left American Jews and Obama supporters – and many of them Democratic donors. On some core issues involving Israel, they’re well to the left of Netanyahu and many Americans: They refer to the “West Bank,” not to “Judea and Samaria,” fervently supported the Oslo peace process and Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and believe in the urgency of creating a Palestinian state.
But they are also fearful for Israel at a moment of turmoil in a hostile region when the moderate Palestinian Authority is joining forces with the militantly anti-Israel Hamas.
“It’s a hot time, because Israel is isolated in the world and, in particular, with the Obama administration putting pressure on Israel,” said Rabbi Neil Cooper, leader of Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El in Philadelphia’s Main Line suburbs, who recently lectured his large, politically connected congregation on avoiding turning Israel into a partisan issue.
Some of these traditional Democrats now say, to their own astonishment, that they’ll consider voting for a Republican in 2012. And many of those who continue to support Obama said they find themselves constantly on the defensive in conversations with friends.
“I’m hearing a tremendous amount of skittishness from pro-Israel voters who voted for Obama and now are questioning whether they did the right thing or not,” said Betsy Sheerr, the former head of an abortion-rights-supporting, pro-Israel PAC in Philadelphia, who said she continues to support Obama, with only mild reservations. “I’m hearing a lot of ‘Oh, if we’d only elected Hillary instead.'”
Even Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who spoke to POLITICO to combat the story line of Jewish defections, said she’d detected a level of anxiety in a recent visit to a senior center in her South Florida district.
“They wanted some clarity on the president’s view,” she said. “I answered their questions and restored some confidence that maybe was a little shaky, [rebutted] misinformation and the inaccurate reporting about what was said.”
Wasserman Schultz and other top Democrats say the storm will pass. (Related: Debbie Wasserman Schultz: Jewish voters will stick with Obama)
They point out to anyone who will listen that beyond the difficult personal relationship of Obama and Netanyahu, beyond a tense, stalled peace process, there’s a litany of good news for supporters of Israel: Military cooperation is at an all-time high; Obama has supplied Israel with a key missile defense system; the U.S. boycotted an anti-racism conference seen as anti-Israel; and America is set to spend valuable international political capital beating back a Palestinian independence declaration at the United Nations in September.
The qualms that many Jewish Democrats express about Obama date back to his emergence onto the national scene in 2007. Though he had warm relations with Chicago’s Jewish community, he had also been friends with leading Palestinian activists, unusual in the Democratic establishment. And though he seemed to be trying to take a conventionally pro-Israel stand, he was a novice at the complicated politics of the America-Israel relationship, and his sheer inexperience showed at times.
At the 2007 AIPAC Policy Conference, Obama professed his love for Israel but then seemed, – to some who were there for his informal talk – to betray a kind of naivete about the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians: “The biggest enemy” he said, using the same rhetoric he applied to American politics, was “not just terrorists, it’s not just Hezbollah, it’s not just Hamas – it’s also cynicism.”
At the next year’s AIPAC conference, he again botched the conflict’s code, committing himself to an “undivided Jerusalem” and then walking it back the next day.
Those doubts and gaffes lingered, even for many of the majority who supported him.
“There’s an inclination in the community to not trust this president’s gut feel on Israel and every time he sets out on a path that’s troubling you do get this ‘ouch’ reaction from the Jewish Community because they’re distrustful of him,” said the president of a major national Jewish organization, who declined to be quoted by name to avoid endangering his ties to the White House.
Many of Obama’s supporters, then and now, said they were unworried about the political allegiance of Jewish voters. Every four years, they say, Republicans claim to be making inroads with American Jews, and every four years, voters and donors go overwhelmingly for the Democrats, voting on a range of issues that include, but aren’t limited to Israel.
But while that pattern has held, Obama certainly didn’t take anything for granted. His 2008 campaign dealt with misgivings with a quiet, intense, and effective round of communal outreach.
“When Obama was running, there was a lot of concern among the guys in my group at shul, who are all late-30s to mid-40s, who I hang out with and daven with and go to dinner with, about Obama,” recalled Scott Matasar, a Cleveland lawyer who’s active in Jewish organizations.
Matasar remembers his friends’ worries over whether Obama was “going to be OK for Israel.” But then Obama met with the community’s leaders during a swing through Cleveland in the primary, and the rabbi at the denominationally conservative synagogue Matasar attends – “a real ardent Zionist and Israel defender” – came back to synagogue convinced.
“That put a lot of my concerns to rest for my friends who are very much Israel hawks but who, like me, aren’t one-issue voters.”
Now Matasar says he’s appalled by Obama’s “rookie mistakes and bumbling” and the reported marginalization of a veteran peace negotiator, Dennis Ross, in favor of aides who back a tougher line on Netanyahu. He’s the most pro-Obama member of his social circle but is finding the president harder to defend.
“He’d been very ham-handed in the way he presented [the 1967 border announcement] and the way he sprung this on Netanyahu,” Matasar said.
A Philadelphia Democrat and pro-Israel activist, Joe Wolfson, recalled a similar progression.
“What got me past Obama in the recent election was Dennis Ross – I heard him speak in Philadelphia and I had many of my concerns allayed,” Wolfson said. “Now, I think I’m like many pro-Israel Democrats now who are looking to see whether we can vote Republican.”
That, perhaps, is the crux of the political question: The pro-Israel Jewish voters and activists who spoke to POLITICO are largely die-hard Democrats, few of whom have ever cast a vote for a Republican to be president. Does the new wave of Jewish angst matter?
One place it might is fundraising. Many of the Clinton-era Democratic mega-donors who make Israel their key issue, the most prominent of whom is the Los Angeles Israeli-American billionaire Haim Saban, never really warmed to Obama, though Saban says he will vote for the Democrat and write him a check if asked.
A top-dollar Washington fundraiser aimed at Jewish donors in Miami last week raised more than $1 million from 80 people, and while one prominent Jewish activist said the DNC had to scramble to fill seats, seven-figure fundraisers are hard to sneer at.
Even people writing five-figure checks to Obama, though, appeared in need of a bit of bucking up.
“We were very reassured,” Randi Levine, who attended the event with her husband, Jeffrey, a New York real estate developer, told POLITICO.
Philadelphia Jewish Democrats are among the hosts of another top-dollar event June 30. David Cohen, a Comcast executive and former top aide to former Gov. Ed Rendell, said questions about Obama’s position on Israel have been a regular, if not dominant, feature of his attempts to recruit donors.
“I takes me about five minutes of talking through the president’s position and the president’s speech, and the uniform reaction has been, ‘I guess you’re right, that’s not how I saw it covered,'” he said.
Others involved in the Philadelphia event, however, said they think Jewish doubts are taking a fundraising toll.
“We’re going to raise a ton of money, but I don’t know if we’re going to hit our goals,” said Daniel Berger, a lawyer who is firmly in the “peace camp” and said he blamed the controversy on Netanyahu’s intransigence.