By Josh Lederman - 12/07/11 10:15 AM EST
Amid growing signs that the Jewish vote will be up for grabs next year, all the major Republican presidential candidates — save for Texas Rep. Ron Paul — will be in Washington on Wednesday to address the Republican Jewish Coalition.
Major Jewish groups have put President Obama on notice over the past few months that he can’t count on their unquestioning support for his 2012 reelection fight.
Additionally, American Jews have been wary that Obama is a fair-weather friend to Israel, given his overtures to the Arab world and remarks critical of the Jewish nation.
“You’ll see some very strong, clear, unequivocal contrast between the vision of Republicans running and the current president as it relates to Israel, a turbulent Middle East and pushing back on the threat of Iranian nuclear weapons,” Brooks said.
An annual survey conducted in September by the American Jewish Committee showed that 48 percent of Jews, long one of the most loyal Democratic voting blocs, disapproved of Obama, while only 45 percent approved. On U.S.-Israeli relations, 53 percent said Obama was getting it wrong. Two years ago, the numbers were flipped, with 54 percent giving Obama a positive rating on Israel.
In response, the Republicans gunning for the White House have tried to one-up one another in support of Israel, hoping to put themselves in the good graces of evangelical Christians and neoconservatives in addition to Jews, who make up an important part of the political-donor community and have sizable constituencies in such swing states as Florida, Nevada and Pennsylvania.
In May, when Obama proposed that Israeli-Palestinian negotiations begin by using the border that predated the Six-Day War of 1967, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) accused the president of throwing Israel “under the bus,” although that proposal has long been seen as the starting point for serious negotiations.
Democrats point out that major Israeli leaders, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s hard-line foreign minister, have praised Obama and signaled no distance between themselves and the United States.
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“Republicans keep trying to hide behind smears and untruths because they know they cannot compete with the facts of the president’s stellar record on Israel,” Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz said in a statement released to The Hill. “This president has secured the largest package of foreign aid in Israel’s history and has enhanced the country’s security time and time again.”
But a new round of comments by Obama’s Defense secretary and foreign policy chief and a prominent ambassador have provided new fodder for those who claim Obama and other Democrats are pursuing a hostile approach to dealings with Israel.
First, U.S. Ambassador to Belgium Howard Gutman — a Jew and the son of a Holocaust survivor — said traditional anti-Semitism should be differentiated from “Muslim hatred for Jews, which stems from the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.”
That comment was construed as meaning that Israel was to blame for Muslim anti-Semitism. Gutman later walked back his comments and Obama distanced himself from them, but the damage was done.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) — the current front-runner in the GOP race — added his voice to the mix when Defense Secretary Leon Panetta called for Israel to “get to the damn table” on Friday.
“The American people deserve to know today: Is it now permissible for American officials to flout official U.S. policy publicly, or do Panetta and Gutman speak for the entire administration?” Gingrich said Tuesday.
Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, a nonpartisan pro-Israel group, said that for the first time, he sees the real possibility that Republicans will secure a major portion of the Jewish vote — and that the GOP presidential candidates are catching on. He said he has met personally with almost all of them.
“It has really been eye-opening to me to see a number of the candidates say to me personally, ‘I wonder if the United States under President Obama can still call itself an ally to Israel,’” Klein said.
One candidate Klein hasn’t met with is Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), whose libertarian approach to dealing with other nations has led him to advocate for less U.S. intervention abroad and an elimination of aid to foreign countries — including Israel.
For that reason, the Republican Jewish Coalition declined to invite Paul to its forum, although he is taking third place in most national polls.
Each of the other six major GOP candidates — Gingrich, Romney, Perry, Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.), former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman — will speak at the forum, which begins at 9 a.m. Wednesday at the Ronald Reagan Building. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) will give a keynote address.