By Alexander Bolton - 03/31/10 10:00 AM EDT
High-profile Jewish Democrats say President Barack Obama has risked an
important bloc of voters because of recent tension with Israel.
Obama’s most outspoken Democratic critic is former New York City Mayor Ed Koch, who campaigned for Obama in Florida during the 2008 election.
Koch said if Obama asked him to do it again he would not, because of the administration’s harsh criticism of Israel in recent days.
Aside from Koch, influential Jewish Democrats who take a critical view of the administration’s recent actions have kept their concerns private, waiting to see how the dust-up between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will play out over the next few weeks.
Privately, these Democrats say that the administration’s criticism of Netanyahu was excessive and will embolden Israel’s enemies.
Jewish Democratic fundraisers and donors say Obama could lose significant financial support and votes, although they caution it is too early to say with certainty.
Exit polls showed Obama won about 78 percent of the Jewish vote in 2008, but Jewish political strategists believe his level of support among the bloc has dropped in recent months.
The impact on the Democratic Party could be significant.
Jewish Democratic donors are believed to make up 25 to 50 percent of the party’s major contributors — those who give more than $25,000 — according to sources familiar with Jewish fundraising.
Some Jewish fundraisers estimate pro-Israel donors give $20 million to $30 million to federal races in an election cycle.
They also make up an active segment of the electorate in swing states such as Florida, where Democrats and Republicans are contesting an open Senate seat.
Many Jewish Democrats were shocked when Vice President Joe Biden publicly condemned the Israeli government’s decision to build new housing in East Jerusalem, a decision Israeli officials announced during Biden’s visit to the area. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton later called Netanyahu to air the administration’s displeasure in a 40-minute phone conversation.
Netanyahu expressed regret for the timing of the announcement, but his apology failed to smooth things over with the administration. Clinton criticized Israel’s settlement activity at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference last week, and Obama declined to dine with Netanyahu or hold a photo-op with him when he visited the White House shortly after.
Alan Kessler, a prominent Jewish Democratic donor and fundraiser with close ties to Biden, said he has not seen any movement of Jewish donors away from the president.
“I don’t disagree with people who say there’s a high degree of concern,” said Kessler. “I think there is concern and people are following with interest what’s happening. But they take the Obama administration at its word that the relationship with Israel is as strong as it’s ever been.”
But he said there is a risk of alienating Jewish donors.
“The risk is it will push people who were always uncertain about Obama,” Kessler said. “In an off-year election, it purports to be a tough enough year for Democrats, and they can’t afford to lose support and financial support they need to conduct this fall’s elections.
“If it suppresses financial participation or votes for Democrats among Jews, it’s a danger, but I don’t think it will,” Kessler added.
Koch, however, said he believes damage has been done.
“It certainly affects me,” he said. “I don’t know about the 78 percent who voted for Obama. I suspect that many of them are more than disappointed; they’re outraged.”
Koch says the timing of Israel’s announcement was unfortunate but did not mark a change in policy on building in East Jerusalem. He noted that Netanyahu agreed to a 10-month moratorium on building new settlements in the West Bank, which Clinton praised, but never agreed to stop building in East Jerusalem, where about 280,000 Jews live.
Some of Obama’s defenders in the Jewish community dismiss Koch’s criticism by noting the lifelong Democrat voted for George W. Bush in 2004. But they acknowledge that his criticisms and those of others have resonated in the Jewish Democratic community.
Koch said he received a call from one Obama adviser asking him to take it easier on the president.
White House spokesmen did not respond to a request to comment for this article.
Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, said Obama’s recent actions have heightened concerns many Jews had of his views on Israel since the election. Obama stirred concerns in 2007 by acknowledging the hardships suffered by Palestinians.
“The support for Obama among American Jews has decreased significantly, especially in the last couple weeks,” said Klein, who voted for McCain in 2008 but previously voted for Michael Dukakis and Bill Clinton and worked for George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign.
Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, a group serving as liaison between the Jewish community and the Democratic Party, said there have been bigger tensions between past administrations and Israel.
Former President George H.W. Bush angered Jewish supporters by opposing a $10 billion loan guarantee for Israel to protest settlement-building in the West Bank.
Former President Jimmy Carter precipitated a crisis with Israel and some American Jews when he supported the sale of 60 F-15 fighter jets to Saudi Arabia.
“People need to have perspective; this is nothing compared to the tension in the relationship in past presidencies,” Forman said. “For example, there are no threats of cutting off aid.
“The Jewish American community is vital for Democratic administrations, and I think this administration understands that and will have to pay attention in the coming weeks and month,” Forman said.
“There are varying levels of concern among the Jewish community on this issue today,” he added. “In terms of implications for 2010 and more importantly for 2012, the relationship will have to play out a lot more than we’ve seen to understand what those implications are.”