Courting the Gentile Vote

Right Angles

By Noam Neusner

Published June 12, 2008, issue of June 20, 2008.
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America’s Jewish community has a clinical obsession with Israel-related issues. The Israel-related mutterings of political candidates are picked over like the stool of future Chinese emperors. If a candidate forgets a certain phrase, or ventures even a slightly extreme reading of American’s Middle East policy, either too left or too right, such is cause for great alarm.

Some in our community think we judge candidates too harshly and define “pro-Israel” too narrowly, and they are forming a counterpart to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee as a result. Others say we are not supportive enough of Israel’s security needs and that we give a free pass to potentially troublesome politicians. This obsession with Israel is neither healthy nor warranted.

For one thing, Israel is the most bipartisan issue in Washington. You can find more members of Congress at Aipac’s annual dinner than at just about any other event, save for the State of the Union joint session.

For another, Jews are the most one-sided political voting bloc outside of African-Americans. Making Israel a political issue in the United States falsely promises a political payoff to the party that secures the position of being the most pro-Israel.

Fact is, Jewish Democrats defend turf that is as secure as Nebraska is to the U.S. Air Force. Republicans won’t play to parity with the Jewish vote until today’s young and fertile Orthodox families, who aren’t freaked out by evangelicals, have grandchildren.

Until then, we must endure the kabuki theater of vetting candidates for office to see if they are pro-Israel enough.

Many rank-and-file members of Aipac supported Hillary Clinton until the end precisely because they thought Barack Obama isn’t strong enough on Israel. Yet they will slide over to Obama painlessly.

John McCain’s pro-Israel credentials are solid, but he’s better known for his support for the security of Iraq — something most Jews don’t care about as much. They are Democrats first, pro-Israel second.

This is no surprise, of course. In the 1980 presidential elections, Jimmy Carter won roughly 60% of the Jewish vote despite his sustained efforts to pressure the Israeli government to make concessions to Yasser Arafat and Arab states. Obama will do no worse among the Jews.

So why go through the meaningless exercise of deciding “who is more pro-Israel” when Jews will overwhelmingly support Democratic candidates anyway? It’s not for the entertainment of the Jewish community — another audience is paying attention to the Israel debates.

Gentile voters care about Israel, too. For more than four decades, Americans have come to appreciate Israel’s friendship and value to the United States. Israel has some of the most favorable public opinion ratings of any foreign nation. (The respect is mutual; Israelis hold very favorable ratings of the United States.)

Israel is a “symbol” issue — it stands for something else. It has long been observed that a white candidate hostile to civil rights risks losing far more white votes than black ones, simply because in many states, suburban whites are turned off by perceived racism.

In the same way, a great majority of gentiles are turned off by anti-Israel candidates. Voters shouldn’t care about Israel that much, but they do. It speaks poorly to a politician’s character and judgment to question America’s commitment to Israel. Carter’s appeal as a champion of Hamas has a low ceiling: In fact, the only place where Israel’s value as an ally is questioned openly is on campus — where, by the way, there are more than a few Jews.

So while the activist pro-Israel community puzzles through the Obama and McCain records to see who voted for which resolution, most other Americans are focused on a much bigger issue: Which candidate is going to stick by America’s friend, that plucky little country everyone else is always picking on?

The gentiles have it right. The obsessions of Israel policy debates — settlements on the left, a move of the embassy on the right — are irrelevant. The real issue is this: Will Israel remain a Jewish state and a bastion of Western values with America’s stubborn support? Or will it be hectored into giving away its security and character?

Gentile supporters and detractors of Israel fundamentally understand this, while Jews from both ends of the political spectrum can’t see the larger picture. That larger picture will be a defining element of the 2008 campaign, and Israel will stand as an important symbol for how the candidates project themselves.

Nobody can predict what Israel-related crises a president will face, but a candidate’s professed instincts and principles tell us how he will deal with them. Obama’s instinct is toward analysis and diplomacy; McCain’s instinct is toward stubbornness and national honor.

But Obama’s rhetorical outreach to Jews lately is not consistent with his own professed instincts. His speech to Aipac earlier this month was replete with muscular language that won him new admirers. At the same time, his speech oversold his position on the status of Jerusalem and whether Iran’s Revolutionary Guards should be considered a terrorist entity.

Obama may well survive questions among Jews about the consistency of his language and positions. They want to like him. But these fresh supporters notwithstanding, Obama still faces doubts among the rest of America that he would do right by the Jewish state and other critical American allies.

It is in that doubt — the doubt that hung over his candidacy throughout the Democratic primaries — that Obama faces his greatest challenge. And it is in that doubt that McCain has his greatest opportunity, even if the Jews don’t vote for him.

Noam Neusner served as President Bush’s principal economic and domestic policy speechwriter from 2002 to 2004.


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