Obama's AIPAC speech will be pivotal for holding onto Jewish voters in 2012

Obama's AIPAC speech will be pivotal for holding onto Jewish voters in 2012

When President Obama takes the stage on Sunday morning before the American Israel Public Affairs Conference, it could represent a pivotal moment for Obama to keep Jewish voters in his corner.

Republicans have sought to peel off the Jewish vote from Obama, as his tenuous relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who will address AIPAC Monday after a one-on-one meeting with Obama, has led to accusations that he isn't supportive of Israel.


“The feeling is that there’s just no empathy there,” said Dov Zakheim, a former undersecretary of Defense under President Reagan and advisor to President George W. Bush.  “And he hasn’t done anything to really change that."

Another one-time supporter of Obama agrees: "I have been completely disappointed in his policies on Israel. He has a lot to prove going forward."

The threat of an Israeli strike on Iran has raised the stakes for both the meeting and Obama’s speech, as an attack without U.S. support has the potential to upend Obama’s reelection campaign and undermine his foreign policy arguments.

Iran has given Republican presidential candidates new ammo to hammer Obama with over Israel. GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney has said Obama is “timid and weak” on the Iranian threat to Israel, and claimed that Iran will acquire a nuclear weapon if Obama is reelected.

But the Republican candidates have their own problems in winning over Jewish voters.

“The question is whether Obama’s perceived hostility toward Israel is a greater turnoff than perhaps some of the evangelical excesses of the eventual Republican nominee,” said Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon official and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, who noted that many Jewish voters are hawkish on Israel but liberal on social issues.

When Obama delivers his speech on Sunday, he will appear before a crowd of Israel diehards, some of whom believe the president has not been a tough enough ally for the country. Obama's remarks could be met with skepticism from some members in the crowd, who have been disappointed by the president’s stance on settlements to the president's position on Iran.

Democrats in Congress appear to recognize that Obama cannot take the Jewish vote for granted, and they have rallied to his defense.

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Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.), who chairs the Democratic National Committee (DNC), penned an editorial in the Washington Jewish Weekly on Wednesday taking on the idea that Obama is not supportive of Israel.

She reminded Jewish voters of Obama’s decisions to increase foreign aid to Israel, ramp up military and stand up for the Jewish state at the United Nations.

“I hear the rumors, too. I receive the dubious email forwards from friends and family,” she wrote. “But no smear campaign can change the fact that the president has not wavered in his support for the Jewish state and effort to curb the Iranian nuclear program.”

Wasserman Shultz’s comments also seemed aimed at the perception that Obama is somehow more sympathetic to the Palestinians than Israel.

Republicans note that Obama has not yet traveled to Israel as president, though he made a high-profile speech in Cairo in which he sought to reset relations with the Arab world following the Iraq war.

The uneasy personal relationship between Obama and Netanyahu is also a sore spot. The last time the two met, Obama clashed with Netanyahu on settlement building and was lectured by the Israeli prime minister in the Oval Office for suggesting the 1967 borders be the starting point for Israeli-Palestinian negotiation.

Obama said an interview published in The Atlantic that they had a “functional” relationship, and Carney described it Friday as “sound.” (This caused some members of the press corps, who witnessed the last Obama-Netanyahu icy meeting, to snicker.)

In his speech, Obama will aim in no uncertain terms to stress his commitment to Israel while making clear that Israel should delay any plans to attack Iran.

It’s something he sought to do Friday in the Atlantic interview that emphasized the U.S. has little tolerance for Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

"I think that the Israeli government recognizes that, as president of the United States, I don't bluff,” Obama said in the interview. "I also don't, as a matter of sound policy, go around advertising exactly what our intentions are. But I think both the Iranian and the Israeli governments recognize that when the United States says it is unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon, we mean what we say."

Obama said there's no reason Israel should doubt U.S. commitment to helping protect their country, and he sought to push back on claims by some Republicans that he isn't a friend of Israel's.

"Every single commitment I have made to the state of Israel and its security, I have kept," Obama said. "Why is it that despite me never failing to support Israel on every single problem that they've had over the last three years, that there are still questions about that?"