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Israel Is a Campaign Issue, but How Big?

Jewish voters in several key states have been bombarded in recent weeks with ads, leaflets and phone calls trying to convince them that their local congressional candidate is not sufficiently strong in his or her support for Israel.

Questioning candidates’ support for Israel is a well-known campaign tactic in districts that have many Jewish voters. But so far, it has not had much of a record of success.

This year, however, Republicans believe they can make it work by tapping into a sense of skepticism shared by many Jewish voters regarding President Obama’s relations with Israel.

Democrats are quick to dismiss this notion, pointing to polls showing that Jewish voters remain strongly on their side. Republicans say that even if the Democrats turn out to be right, raising the issue of Democratic support for Israel now could bear fruit in the long run, when Jewish voters make their choice in the next presidential elections.

“It opens opportunities for 2012, when foreign policy plays a role,” said GOP pollster and Fox News commentator Frank Luntz. “It sets the tone for 2012.”

In the meantime, Republicans are pouring significant amounts of cash into congressional races in which they believe Jewish voters could be swayed to depart from their traditional Democratic tilt and vote for a Republican candidate they describe as stronger on Israel.

In California, newspaper ads paid for by the Republican Jewish Coalition accused Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer of not being a “real friend” of Israel. The reason: “Barbara Boxer remained silent as the Obama administration pressured Israel and supported Israel’s enemies,” a reference to Israel’s negotiating partner, the Palestinian Authority. A spokesman for Boxer’s campaign called the ad “factually incorrect” and stressed Boxer’s work to strengthen America-Israel ties as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Other states in which the ad war is raging include Washington, where Democratic Senator Patty Murray is facing similar attack ads, and Illinois, where Democratic Senate candidate Alexi Giannoulias was criticized for funding pro-Palestinian groups. But most efforts are focused on Pennsylvania’s Senate race, where Democratic candidate Joe Sestak has been under ongoing attack from several conservative groups for signing a letter last January calling for an ease of the Israeli siege of Gaza.

The Pennsylvania campaign seems to be the only one in which Republican criticism is proving to have an impact. This impact may not be enough to change voters’ views, but it is taking its toll in terms of the campaign resources that Sestak and his fellow Democrats are being forced to deploy to counter the onslaught.

“All of a sudden you have to spend a lot of unnecessary energy trying to convince people who in the past would automatically support the Democratic candidate,” said Betsy Sheerr, a Pennsylvania Democratic activist who formerly headed a local pro-Israel political action committee. In recent months, Sherr has been involved in making the case for Sestak’s record on Israel, a task that previously would have been superfluous. “There’s a lot of time, energy and money wasted on these needless accusations,” she said.

Republicans argue that in some close upcoming elections, the Israel issue will play more than a marginal role. They point to Ohio, Florida, and Nevada as states in which the Jewish vote could decide whether a Democrat or a Republican goes to the Senate. Matt Brooks, executive director of the RJC, said that Jewish voters “are concerned” and that based on polling done, “the issues we are talking about are in line with what people are worried about.”

But national polling data, to which Democrats happily point, prove that Israel is not a deciding factor for most Jewish voters. An American Jewish Committee survey of Jewish public opinion, published October 11, asked participants to rate the issues important to them when going to the polls on November 2. Israel came in sixth place, while the economy, unemployment and health care topped the list of Jewish voters’ concerns. These results are consistent with previous election-related polls showing that Jewish voters do not put Israel high on their list of priorities.

“Jewish voters need to be comfortable that their candidates support Israel, and once they are sure of that, they move on to other issues,” said David Harris, president and CEO of the National Jewish Democratic Council. Harris argued that after satisfying the basic requirement of supporting Israel, Jewish voters are closer to the Democrats on all other issues.

“The issue of Israel never comes up in campaign strategy meetings or in focus groups,” Democratic pollster Jim Gerstein added. Jewish voters who see Israel as a deciding issue are, according to Gerstein, a small minority that in any case leans toward the Republican side.

“Every two years, Republicans say this is the year in which Israel will be an election issue, and it is never so,” Democratic political consultant Matt Dorf stated. He predicted that exit polls after the November elections would prove him right.

But one Democratic activist, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed that although voters distinguish between presidential policy and congressional elections, the issue of Obama’s relations with the Israeli government does come up in meetings with Jewish voters across the country. Some of them, said the activist, raised questions about Obama’s reported snub of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, an event that both American and Israeli officials say never happened.

Brooks argued that in the 2008 presidential elections, Jewish voters were already “deeply concerned” about Obama’s attitude toward Israel, but then came the economic meltdown, and “the whole narrative of the race changed.” The AJC poll found that today, only 49% of American Jews approve of the way the Obama administration is handling relations with Israel.

“I’m willing to guarantee that more Jews will vote Republican in 2010 than in the last midterm elections, in 2006,” said Luntz, who, with other Republicans, believes the issue is gradually gaining traction and could play a key role in two years, when Obama is up for re-election.

Contact Nathan Guttman at [email protected]

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