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Partisanship, Israel, and American Jewry

In the last of my posts on the fascinating McLaughlin poll, I’ll look at the cross-tabs examining partisan differences on Obama, Israel, and foreign policy and consider what the drop in Democratic support for Israel means for American Jewish leaders.

As a general matter, Obama has a problem with independents. Sixty-seven percent of them would consider voting for someone else. Overall, voters disapprove of Obama’s performance by a 50 to 48 percent margin; among independents, however, 60 percent disapprove.

More specifically, only 13 percent of Republicans and 40 percent of independents approve of Obama’s handling of foreign policy. Eighty-three percent of Democrats approve, high marks, but they reflect his base’s unease with the war in Afghanistan. The contrast grows stronger when the issue is narrowed to Israel. Among Republicans, only 13 percent approve of Obama’s handling of U.S.-Israel relations, and only 30 percent of independents do. Seventy-six percent of Democrats, by far his most enthusiastic base of support on this issue but much lower than on broader policy issues, approve of the job Obama is doing. Asked whether Obama is harming or improving Israel’s security, only 51 percent of Democrats say he is improving; they can’t, however, bring themselves to admit that he is harming Israel’s security, so 35 percent go with “undecided.” And again, independents (50 percent) are much closer to Republicans (75 percent) in thinking Obama is harming the security of the Jewish state. (Interestingly, a plurality of Democrats is willing to confess that Obama is less friendly toward Israel than past presidents.)

Remarkably, only 39 percent of Democrats agree that Israel’s enemies are our enemies, while 70 percent of Republicans and 48 percent of independents do. A plurality (42 percent) of Democrats do let on that Obama’s approach in criticizing Israel but not the Palestinians is objectionable, but that figure once again is far lower than it is for Republicans (68 percent) and independents (57 percent). Should Jerusalem remain Israel’s undivided capital? Sixty-three percent of Republicans agree, but only a plurality of Democrats (42 percent) do. Who’s responsible for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Seventy-three percent of Republicans and 57 percent of independents say it is the Palestinians fault; only 46 percent of Democrats agree. Would they be more likely to vote for a pro-Israel candidate? A measly 38 percent of Democrats say yes; sixty-nine percent of Republicans would be.

On question after question, Republicans remain the most forceful defenders of Israel, with independents more divided but positive as well. Put differently, if Israel had to rely on Democrats alone, it would not enjoy a majority of American support on key issues.

That’s even clearer when it comes to Iran. Only 24 percent of Republicans say they are “strongly opposed” to Israel’s or the U.S.’s attacking Iran; nearly double that — 45 percent — of Democrats are. In a conflict with Israel’s enemies, only 21 percent of Republicans and 26 percent of independents want to pressure Israel into a ceasefire; a large plurality of Democrats, 47 percent, do. Do they think Obama’s sanction will succeed in stopping Iran from going nuclear? Less than 20 percent of Republicans and independents do; a substantial plurality of Democrats (46 percent) does. If sanctions don’t work, huge majorities of Republicans (75 percent) and independents (62 percent) favor military action against Iran; a bare plurality of Democrats (46 percent) do. And finally, if Israel is forced to attack Iran, 79 percent of Republicans and 66 percent of independents would consider that “defensive”; only 50 percent of Democrats do.

To sum up, once again, the GOP is the political party most alarmed by the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran, most supportive of our using military force to disarm the mullahs, and most willing to support Israel in the event of a military conflict. Democrats are the least supportive of Israel and military action with regard to Iran, while independents fall somewhere in the middle but closer to the GOP on these issues.

There are three lessons to be learned here.

First, the Democratic Party, once a bastion of support for the Jewish state, no longer is. Those who bemoan that Israel is becoming a divisive political issue ignore the reason for this development: Democrats aren’t as supportive of Israel as Republicans, and that view is at odds with the electorate.

Second, Jewish groups, which remain primarily Democratic and have, as we’ve seen, been reluctant to criticize a Democratic president hostile to Israel, have a fundamental problem: the strongest supporters of their mission to support the Jewish state come from the ranks of those who are normally political opponents, and, conversely, their biggest problem is Democrats. That is a political and intellectual challenge that Jewish leaders need to face. Will their membership take on Democratic policy and candidates if they threaten to undermine support for the Jewish state?

And finally, there is no upside, none at all, for American politicians to bash Israel, to attempt to restrain the Jewish state in the event of a military action, or to show timidity on Iran. These are losing propositions with the American electorate. So a caution for the president: even if he has convinced himself that his current policies are the correct ones, his approach is wildly out of sync with voters. Or put differently, if not for the right reasons, at least for political reasons, he’d be well advised to rethink his reticence toward the use of force against Iran and his policy of distancing the U.S. from Israel.


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