Obama's Israel policy could loom large as midterm election issue in key races

As the Obama administration tries to mend its strained ties with Israel, strategists say U.S. policy on the Jewish state could influence several battleground House and Senate races this fall.

Jewish leaders from both parties are watching Senate campaigns in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois and Florida, and a pair of House races in President Barack Obama's home state where they say Israel policy could loom large.

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The president held a high-profile White House meeting Tuesday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu designed to present a united front after tensions between the allies spilled into a rare public dispute over settlement policy earlier this year.

Republicans have tried to exploit the rift to make inroads among Jewish voters, long a reliably Democratic constituency that goes to the polls in midterm elections more often than voters at large.

The executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC), Matthew Brooks, said that “despite the warm and fuzzy photo-op” between Obama and Netanyahu, Jewish voters “are rightly troubled and rightly concerned” about the U.S. relationship with Israel.

“I’d characterize the relationship as very cool,” Brooks said.

Brooks said Democratic candidates would have to choose between defending Obama’s record on Israel on one side and “standing with the Jewish community” on the other. “It’s going to be a very uncomfortable place for them,” he said.

The president said after the meeting with Netanyahu that the U.S. bond with Israel is “unbreakable,” and Democrats say GOP attempts to question Obama’s support for Israel represent a familiar — but failed — strategy. The RJC in particular warned during the 2008 presidential campaign that Obama would be hostile to Israel as president; Obama went on to win 78 percent of the Jewish vote, better than Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004.

The U.S.-Israel alliance “has never been stronger or more strategically aligned than it is today,” said David Harris, president of the National Jewish Democratic Council.

Divisions over Israel policy have already cropped up in the Pennsylvania Senate race between Democratic Rep. Joe Sestak and former GOP Rep. Pat Toomey. The RJC has attacked Sestak for being among the 54 House Democrats to sign a January letter criticizing the Israeli blockade of Gaza as unduly punishing Palestinians.

“Sestak is absolutely one of the worst Democrats when it comes to the pro-Israel issues,” Brooks charged.

Sestak’s campaign, backed by the liberal Jewish group J Street, pointed out that the substance of the letter effectively became Israeli policy when Netanyahu moved to ease the blockade months later.

"As a former three-star admiral who directly participated in the defense of Israel, Joe Sestak’s commitment to Israel's security is beyond question,” a campaign spokesman, Jonathon Dworkin, said. “He has always voted in the interest of Israel's security.”

Dworkin also pointed out that Toomey, as a member of Congress in the 1990s, had twice voted against funding bills that included aid to Israel.

“We feel very comfortable with his support for Israel,” NJDC’s political director, Linda Berg, said.

Jewish Democrats have high hopes for Lee Fisher, the Jewish lieutenant governor of Ohio who is running for the open Senate seat against Republican Rob Portman. And Republicans hope to make Israel policy an issue in the race for Obama’s old Senate seat in Illinois, where the GOP nominee, Rep. Mark Kirk, is a familiar face to Jewish voters with a long record of support for Israel.

In that race, Jewish Democrats are trying to change the subject. Kirk “has an excellent track record of lulling American Jews into forgetting that they disagree with him on everything except Israel,” Harris said.

Allies of the White House – and the White House itself – insist that reports of a rift between the administration and Israel have been exaggerated. Still, they have found themselves on the defensive amid an aggressive GOP effort to win the support of voters for whom Israel is a prime concern.

Democrats say the Jewish leadership in Washington has moved to the right and is now out of step with rank-and-file Jewish voters. The liberal J Street, which has at times criticized Israeli policy, has emerged in the last two years to challenge the lobbying supremacy of the more hawkish American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). The group wants greater U.S. involvement to effect a peaceful end and a two-state solution to the Middle East conflict.

The battle between J Street and other Jewish groups has flared in a House race in Illinois, where incumbent Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D), has come under fire from a Republican challenger, Joel Pollak, for her stance on Israel. Pollack won the endorsement of Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz, a Democrat known for his hawkish support of Israel. In response, J Street circulated an online fund-raising petition for Schakowsky, collecting $40,000 in a day.

Israel policy could also be a factor in the competitive House race to replace Kirk in Illinois’s 10th district, one of the few that Democrats hope to pick up this year. Both the Democrat, Dan Seals, and the GOP candidate, Bob Dold, have pledged support for the Jewish state.

J Street officials boast that their political action committee has distributed more money to candidates for the 2010 elections – some $680,000 – than during the entire 2008 campaign. But J Street also argues that Israel policy is not a top priority for most Jewish voters. The group’s president, Jeremy Ben-Ami, said a recent poll it commissioned found that less than 10 percent of American Jews cited Israel as one of their top two voting issues.

“It’s really a small percentage for whom this is a top-tier issue,” Ben-Ami said.

Democrats have tried to win over Jewish voters by pushing other issues. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spent days highlighting a report that a prominent GOP fundraiser, Fred Malek, had provided a list of Jews working in the Bureau of Labor Statistics to President Richard Nixon, upon Nixon’s request.