GOP sees Israel as wedge issue

Republican strategists say President Obama’s call for peace negotiations based on Israel’s 1967 borders will help them drive a wedge between Jewish voters and the Democratic Party.

GOP strategists acknowledged that their party for years has tried with little success to split Jewish voters and donors from Democratic candidates.

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This time is different, they say, because of perceptions by some that Obama is more concerned with the American image on the Arab street than staunchly defending Israel in its standoff with Palestinian leadership. 

Obama, in one of his first steps into Middle East policy, called for Israel to suspend new settlements in the West Bank in 2009. He has since had a rocky relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who last spring was left sitting in a White House room after Obama interrupted talks to have dinner.

Last week’s speech was timed just before Netanyahu’s visit to Washington, and it caught the Israeli prime minister off guard.

Republicans argue that even if a large majority of Jewish voters stick with the president, some movement on the margins could help a Republican candidate narrowly win key swing states such as Florida and Ohio. 

Obama won 78 percent of the Jewish vote in 2008; Ari Fleischer, the White House press secretary under former President George W. Bush, acknowledged that Democrats will win a strong majority again in 2012. But, he said, if the ratio of Jewish votes for Obama compared to the Republican presidential nominee drops to 3-1, it would have a major impact in Florida and Ohio. 

“I think it is likely to impact the Jewish vote — it was an unnecessary wound, a self-inflicted wound and a wound that will not heal very quickly,” said Fleischer, a member of the Republican Jewish Coalition’s board of directors.

 Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said last week he would advance a resolution condemning Obama’s comments that would force Democratic senators to either distance themselves from the president or face heat from their Jewish constituents.

Hatch’s spokesman said Monday that he is working with Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) on a resolution expressing support for Israel, evidence his effort could gain Democratic support.

Some GOP supporters of Israel see Obama as being willing to criticize Israel in order to ingratiate himself with Arab public sentiment. They argue this could cost him in 2012.

 “Obama creates the strong impression that Israel is a stone in his shoe and that it’s very important for him to make a strong impression on the Arab Street and with European governments, the best way to accomplish both is to kick on Israel every once and a while,” said Mark Isakowitz, a prominent GOP strategist and lobbyist who sits on the Republican Jewish Coalition’s board of directors.

Democrats argue that Obama broke no new ground by positing the 1967 borders and mutual land swaps as the basis of negotiation.

Brad Bauman, a spokesman for the National Jewish Democratic Council, said that Republicans make similar claims every election cycle.

“Everybody now knows, especially after we heard the president speak at AIPAC, that his speech was nothing new,” said Bauman in reference to a speech Obama delivered Sunday at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, where he tried to quell the uproar caused by his earlier remarks. “There’s no context giving any Jewish voter or Jewish donor a cause for pause.”

But not all Democrats were satisfied with the president’s follow-up explanation.

“If President Obama does not change his position, I cannot vote for his re-election,” Ed Koch, the former Democratic mayor of New York City, wrote in a May 23 commentary.

Koch said, “Obama’s efforts to reassure supporters of Israel, at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee on May 22, did not reassure me.”

Koch campaigned for Obama in sections of Florida in the 2008 presidential election. He told The Hill last year that he would not campaign for Obama again after Vice President Joe Biden condemned the Israeli government’s decision to build new housing in East Jerusalem.

Now Koch is warning he might not even vote for the president.

Democrats in Congress backed away from Obama’s remarks last week.

“I’m concerned about his reference to the ’67 borders. But I think the goal is still the same — to create an atmosphere for peace,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) told Newsday.

Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), who is in charge of House Democrats’ campaign operation, said he disagreed with Obama’s choice of a starting point for negotiations, calling the reference to the 1967 border “gratuitous.”

Interactions last week between Obama and Netanyahu only heightened the appearance that the two men are far from being best friends.

 The Israeli prime minister immediately slammed Obama’s vision, calling the 1967 boundaries “indefensible” and arguing passionately against using them as a basis for agreement during a tense White House meeting the next day.

Republicans point to the president’s 2009 speech in Cairo, Egypt, calling for a new beginning with the Muslim world, when he juxtaposed the anti-Semitism in Europe that culminated in the Holocaust to suffering of the Palestinian people who “endured the pain of dislocation” for more than 60 years.

“In the Democratic Party, there has been a growing anti-Israel segment,” said Rob Collins, former chief of staff to Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the highest-ranking Jewish leader in Congress. “There’s also an aggressive pro-Israel caucus in the Democrat Party but it’s not what it was 20 years ago. Obama’s comments don’t help.”