Palestinian Move Hits Obama Vote Base; Republicans Woo Jewish Electorate


obama2Barack Obama has not only been managing a global diplomatic tangle between Israel and Palestine at the UN in New York this week. The move has also left the beleaguered president juggling an acutely sensitive domestic issue with ramifications for his re-election.

At a time when Mr Obama is sweating on every vote he can muster for the 2012 poll, the Palestinian push for statehood is playing into the Republican narrative that he has let Israel and the US Jewish community down.

A sliver of the electorate, making up a little under 3 per cent of voters, the Jewish community is nonetheless pivotal in the swing states of Florida and Ohio, and also important for fundraising.

“Mr Obama does not want to get into an unproductive fight with Israel,” said Aaron David Miller, a longtime State Department expert on the Middle East who is now at the Woodrow Wilson Centre.

Despite repeated attempts by Republicans to woo them away, Jewish voters have remained a bastion of Democratic support in almost a century of presidential polls. In 2008, Mr Obama was backed by about eight in 10 Jewish voters.

“American Jews do not merely favour Democrats; historically, they are the second most reliable bloc of Democratic voters after African-Americans,” said Jay Lefkowitz, a lawyer and a former adviser to George W. Bush.

Mr Lefkowitz said the Jewish community had remained avowedly liberal since the first wave of immigrants grew up under Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and that most Americans Jews had never been to Israel in any case.

“It is almost as if they vote with their right hand, they worry it will fall off. Many Jews can only vote with their left hand,” he said.
But Republicans sense an opening in the difficult relationship between Mr Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu, and have publicly taken the Israeli Prime Minister’s side in his disputes with the administration.

In his first foray into foreign policy, Rick Perry, the Texas governor, the leading Republican contender for the 2012 nomination, said that the Palestinians are exploiting “errors” by Mr Obama and a perceived weakening in ties between the US and Israel.

John Boehner, the Republican house speaker, addressed the Jewish National Fund’s annual convention at the weekend in his home state of Ohio, saying the US had to be “not just as a broker or observer, but as a strong partner and reliable ally”.

Republicans were buoyed by their victory in last week’s special election in a New York congressional district held by Democrats for nearly a century, in the heavily Jewish district covering parts of Queens and Brooklyn.

The Jewish voters in Ohio and Florida in many respects mirror the electorate in New York which swung to the Republicans, with large concentrations of orthodox and conservative Jews loyal to Israel.

“In light of the New York election and Obama’s unpopularity, there is a real possibility of some shift in voting patterns, in particular, in Ohio and Florida, where the Jewish vote tends to be more important,” said Mr Lefkowitz.

Norm Ornstein, of the American Enterprise Institute, is wary of reading too much into the New York result and said Jews have never been single-issue voters.

“But we will see a lot happening in the Middle East over the next year and how that plays out for Obama I am not sure,” he said.

The US and other western nations are still trying to persuade the Palestinians not to ask for a vote in the UN Security Council on statehood and instead leverage the standoff to restart negotiations with Israel.

But if Palestinians go ahead with an application to the Security Council, “the administration will veto it, and not lose a moment’s sleep over doing so”, said Mr Miller.

Any veto would be squarely in line with deep bipartisan support for Israel in an otherwise divided Congress.

There is already a wave of measures before Congress, which will strip funding not only from the Palestinian authority if the UN push succeeds, but also from all UN bodies.

The most far-reaching measure put forward in a 153-page bill by the chairwoman of the House foreign affairs committee, Florida Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, makes US funding of UN agencies conditional on how the body votes on the statehood issue.

Given the mood in Congress, this issue may be the one thing that both Democrats and Republicans can agree on.

{The Financial Times/ Newscenter}