Sunday August 30, 2015
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Richard Baehr

Israel, the Jews and a second Obama term

On a day when conservatives are alternatively mourning and looking for those to blame for the electoral defeat on Tuesday, there are others trumpeting the results of exit polls and other polls commissioned on election day to show that at least among American Jews, the Republican brand is not in decline, but growing. The national exit polls suggested that Jews voted 69% for Obama, and 30% for Mitt Romney, a result almost ten points better for Romney than for John McCain in 2008, who lost 78% to 21% among Jewish voters in that years exit poll survey.

The Republican Jewish Coalition, which ran a series of ads in the battleground states Ohio, Pennsylvania, Nevada, and Florida, conducted polls among Jewish voters in Florida, Ohio and nationally yesterday. The results suggest that the Obama/Romney margin among Jews was a bit narrower than the exit poll numbers. Exit polls make no claim to interview a random sample of small subgroups within their national samples (e.g., a mix of Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and unaffiliated Jews), so the RJC polls may be a better indication of how Jews voted this year.

Overall white support for President Obama dropped from 43% in 2008 to 39% in 2012, and the decline in Jewish support mirrored this. Obama won because of his strength among minority voters. He gained about 45% of his total vote from minority groups African Americans, Hispanics, and Asians while Romney obtained fewer than 10% of his total vote from these groups. The Republican Party is in trouble because the combined share of the U.S. voting population represented by minority groups rises every year, and the Republican share of this ever larger group is pitiful. Obama won 80% of the total minority vote. This year, minorities were 28% of the total electorate, up from 26% in 2008. American Jews represent a declining share of the U.S. population every year (2% now, down from 4% fifty years back), and it is likely that the rapidly growing Hispanic population will be the primary target of the two parties going forward, even if the Jewish vote has come a bit more into play.

Of course, even as the Jewish vote becomes less significant each cycle (Obama is ahead in still undecided Florida despite his drop-off in Jewish support there), Jewish financial support for campaigns remains important. Here there is a big difference between the two parties. Republican Jews consider U.S. support for Israel a key issue if not the most important issue in their voting and financial support for candidates. Israel ranks far down the list of issues of importance for Jewish Democrats, including the most generous contributors to campaigns. Now that the Democrats have won, what will that mean for the U.S.-Israel relationship in a second Obama term?

Barack Obama won a narrow election victory on Tuesday (just over a 2% popular vote margin). In his first term, the president often had problems in his dealings with Israels Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu. With no need to go back to Jewish voters for support or to raise money from them for future campaigns, will Obama be freer in a second term to separate U.S. policy from its historic close ties to the Jewish state, and pursue an alternate agenda outreach to the Islamic world, a push for a Palestinian state, or nuclear disarmament?

In the past two weeks, there have been stories in the press about secret U.S.-Iranian negotiations concerning Irans nuclear program being conducted in a third country. Those stories have been filled in a bit the last few days, with reports that the presidents closest advisor, Valerie Jarrett, has been meeting with her Iranian counterparts in Bahrain. It is not clear what, if anything, the U.S. would offer the Iranians for a cessation of their nuclear program, or for greater international controls over it. While international sanctions have taken a bite out of the Iranian economy, there is no evidence of the Iranians responding to them by pleas for some kind of deal (e.g., the West dropping the sanctions for some agreement on their nuclear program). Some are hoping that the talks in Bahrain represent a public attempt by the White House to make one final serious effort to achieve a negotiated agreement with Iran on their nuclear program before other options are considered to stop the Iranians in their tracks.

This theory has a corollary: that Netanyahu agreed not to attack Iran in the months leading up to the November U.S. election, in exchange for U.S. support for such a military strike after the election. Presumably, the current talks are required to prove that the president did everything in his power to avoid such military action until it was required as a last resort with all other options played out, and completion of the Iranian program in sight. I would take the other side of any wager on this theory as reality.

Those less sanguine about Obamas intentions towards Israel suggest that any U.S. deal with Iran over its nuclear program would be at Israels expense. Specifically, Iranian concessions would be accompanied by a renewed drive by the U.S. to force a deal between Israel and the Palestinians to create a Palestinian state (translation: U.S. pressures Israel to make the concessions required to get such a deal done). There is no evidence, however, that the Palestinian Authority has any real interest in a final agreement with Israel, the so-called two state solution, since it would likely require the Palestinians to give up future claims against Israel, and give up on the right of return. U.S. pressure on Israel might then do little other than to further exacerbate tensions between the two countries.

The likelihood that foreign affairs, and more particularly, Israeli-Palestinian relations and the Iranian nuclear program, will be a big focus for the president in his second term, is based in part on the sense that Obama may not be able to accomplish much on the domestic front. The Republicans lost a few seats in the U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday, but maintained control of that body. The GOP lost seats in the Senate, but still has enough votes to maintain a filibuster. In other words, there will be no smooth sailing for the presidents initiatives on domestic policy in the first two years of his second term unless there is a willingness on both his part and the Republicans in Congress to compromise to advance legislation on energy policy, immigration reform, tax simplification and reform, and entitlement spending. Almost everything that the president accomplished in his first term, occurred when his party had complete control in both houses of Congress in 2009-2010, or by executive actions done without the consent of Congress. Obama never showed any willingness in his first four years in office to make any real compromises with Republicans. If gridlock continues on the domestic front, the president, who has always been anxious to burnish his legacy with major accomplishments, may look abroad to do it. That could well put Israel in his sights.

There have always been fears by some analysts that once Obama was unrestrained by domestic political considerations (no more elections to run), he could pursue his real ideological agenda, both domestically and internationally. Given his history as a community organizer, his background in the Muslim world, his commitment to redistribution policies both here and abroad, and his past close relationships with many people who are or were bitter foes of the State of Israel (Edward Said, Rashid Khalidi, Ali Abunimah, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Bill Ayers), that agenda could take a darker turn with regard to Israel, and seek to fundamentally alter the historic relationship between the two countries. Sadly, if this is the course that is pursued, many in the American Jewish community will not put up much of a fight about it, since Israel just does not matter that much to them.

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