Commentary Magazine


Posts For: May 19, 2011

Obama on Thin Ice With Jewish Voters

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.

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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.

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How to Cut the Budget while Also Helping Israel

Writing in today’s Haaretz, Israel Harel offers an excellent suggestion for what Israel’s prime minister should tell Congress next week. There is no chance Benjamin Netanyahu will actually do so. But the Republican-controlled House ought to act on it anyway, because it lets Congress further two cherished goals simultaneously: cutting the budget and helping Israel. All it would take is eliminating U.S. funding for UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East.

As Harel correctly noted, this UN agency exists for one reason only: to advance the goal of Israel’s destruction by imprisoning an ever-growing mass of “refugees”—or, more accurately, their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren—in miserable conditions for decades and offering them one and only one prospect of escape: a “return” to what is now Israel, where they could combine with the country’s existing Arab residents to create an Arab majority and vote the Jewish state out of existence. Its sorry history and even sorrier present condition was the subject of Mikhail Bernstam’s important COMMENTARY article, “The Palestinian Proletariat.”

In the 62 years since its founding, UNRWA hasn’t resettled a single Palestinian refugee. Doing so would defeat its purpose. During those same 62 years, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees—which handles all refugees worldwide except Palestinians—resettled tens of millions. Even tiny Israel resettled over a million refugees on its own: Holocaust survivors and Jews forced out of Arab countries after its establishment. In contrast, Arab countries that “absorbed” Palestinian refugees denied them citizenship (with the partial exception of Jordan), confined them to squalid camps and subjected them to various onerous restrictions: Lebanon, for instance, bars Palestinians from numerous professions.

Thus the refugee problem will never be solved as long as UNRWA exists. And the more time passes, the harder it becomes to solve. Because Palestinians are the only refugees in the world whose descendants inherit refugee status in perpetuity, the original 700,000 or so have now ballooned to 4.8 million (according to UNRWA), and the number keeps growing every day.

Yet as Harel pointed out, the U.S. bears primary responsibility for the agency’s continued existence, because it is UNRWA’s largest single donor. In 2009, according to the agency, America contributed $268 million, which constituted 28% of UNRWA’s budget. Thus only the U.S. has the leverage to finally get the agency closed, by shutting off its funding.

Granted, other countries could fill the breach. But since Arab countries, for all their talk of solidarity with the Palestinians, are notoriously stingy about coughing up money to help them, the only likely candidate is the European Union. Together with its member states, the EU already funds a substantial chunk of UNRWA’s budget. The Palestinians are its favorite cause. Witness its immediate pledge of 85 million euros to compensate for Israel’s suspension of tax transfers to the Palestinian Authority following the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation agreement.

But if Europeans really want to perpetuate the Palestinian war against Israel, let them deprive their own troubled economies of the necessary funds. There is no reason whatever for the U.S. to keep subsidizing this war.

Writing in today’s Haaretz, Israel Harel offers an excellent suggestion for what Israel’s prime minister should tell Congress next week. There is no chance Benjamin Netanyahu will actually do so. But the Republican-controlled House ought to act on it anyway, because it lets Congress further two cherished goals simultaneously: cutting the budget and helping Israel. All it would take is eliminating U.S. funding for UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East.

As Harel correctly noted, this UN agency exists for one reason only: to advance the goal of Israel’s destruction by imprisoning an ever-growing mass of “refugees”—or, more accurately, their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren—in miserable conditions for decades and offering them one and only one prospect of escape: a “return” to what is now Israel, where they could combine with the country’s existing Arab residents to create an Arab majority and vote the Jewish state out of existence. Its sorry history and even sorrier present condition was the subject of Mikhail Bernstam’s important COMMENTARY article, “The Palestinian Proletariat.”

In the 62 years since its founding, UNRWA hasn’t resettled a single Palestinian refugee. Doing so would defeat its purpose. During those same 62 years, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees—which handles all refugees worldwide except Palestinians—resettled tens of millions. Even tiny Israel resettled over a million refugees on its own: Holocaust survivors and Jews forced out of Arab countries after its establishment. In contrast, Arab countries that “absorbed” Palestinian refugees denied them citizenship (with the partial exception of Jordan), confined them to squalid camps and subjected them to various onerous restrictions: Lebanon, for instance, bars Palestinians from numerous professions.

Thus the refugee problem will never be solved as long as UNRWA exists. And the more time passes, the harder it becomes to solve. Because Palestinians are the only refugees in the world whose descendants inherit refugee status in perpetuity, the original 700,000 or so have now ballooned to 4.8 million (according to UNRWA), and the number keeps growing every day.

Yet as Harel pointed out, the U.S. bears primary responsibility for the agency’s continued existence, because it is UNRWA’s largest single donor. In 2009, according to the agency, America contributed $268 million, which constituted 28% of UNRWA’s budget. Thus only the U.S. has the leverage to finally get the agency closed, by shutting off its funding.

Granted, other countries could fill the breach. But since Arab countries, for all their talk of solidarity with the Palestinians, are notoriously stingy about coughing up money to help them, the only likely candidate is the European Union. Together with its member states, the EU already funds a substantial chunk of UNRWA’s budget. The Palestinians are its favorite cause. Witness its immediate pledge of 85 million euros to compensate for Israel’s suspension of tax transfers to the Palestinian Authority following the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation agreement.

But if Europeans really want to perpetuate the Palestinian war against Israel, let them deprive their own troubled economies of the necessary funds. There is no reason whatever for the U.S. to keep subsidizing this war.

Read Less




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