After the 2008 election, in which Barack Obama swept to victory with about 78 percent of the Jewish vote, there were those who claimed this result proved the Republicans had failed to make Israel a wedge issue with Jewish voters. Leaders of the J Street lobbying group as well as leftist intellectuals like Bernard Avishai made the claim that the poor showing for the GOP, in spite of Obama’s having a shakier record on Israel than John McCain, illustrated that most Jews were no longer prepared to vote on the basis of which candidate was more likely to be back the Jewish state. This meant, they asserted, that a President Obama should have no fears of a political backlash if, as they hoped, he decided to distance the United States from Israelis.
Obama acted as if he believed this analysis was true in his first year and a half in office. He tried engagement with Iran and picked unnecessary fights with newly elected Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over Jerusalem. But by the time the dust settled on these fights, Obama discovered the assurances he had received from J Street about Jewish support for pressure on Israel were leftist fantasies. The Jewish community was uncomfortable with his barely concealed hostility to Israel and that this was having an impact on his party. In response to this, Obama spent the rest of 2010 engaging in a “charm offensive” designed to cozy up to American Jews.
A year later, Obama is tempted again to push hard on the Israelis. But, as the Wall Street Journal reports today, the political price for doing so will not be small.
The White House has gotten the message that even many stalwart Jewish Democratic donors are not happy with his attitude toward Israel. Should he decide to make Israel pay for a “reset” with the Arab world, the backlash will not be inconsiderable.
As the Journal rightly notes, most Jews are not one-issue voters. Most are liberals as well as partisan Democrats who care more about other issues, which means Obama is likely to retain a majority of Jewish votes in 2012 no matter what he does to Israel. But his advisors understand that another blow-up with Israel will hurt vital fundraising efforts. It could also cost him some Jewish votes. Even an increase in the Jewish vote going to the GOP from McCain’s paltry 22 percent to a number in the mid-30s could be important in pivotal states like Pennsylvania and Florida.
Obama can, as he will in his speech to AIPAC on Sunday, point to the fact that the strategic alliance with Israel has not been weakened on his watch with respect to aid aimed at improving Israel’s defenses. Despite his hostility to Israel’s government and his foolish persistence in believing that more Israeli concessions will convince intransigent Palestinians to make peace, he has avoided a complete meltdown with Jerusalem though that is largely because Netanyahu has refused to take the bait and snipe back. But, if, as the Journal reports, over 40 percent of Jews would consider voting for someone other than Obama next year, the president must weigh the dubious diplomatic benefits of pressuring Israel against the certainty that such a policy will come with a not inconsiderable political price tag.