A political strategy attributed to Republican mastermind Karl Rove advocates going after your rival’s strengths, not his weaknesses. The classic example, of course, is the 2004 Swift Boat attack ads against Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry. The ads went after Kerry’s perceived strength, his war hero credentials, and succeeded in shaking his image.
The new ad put out Friday by the Republican Jewish Coalition seems to be following this strategy. President Obama has made his strong commitment to Israel’s security the cornerstone of his appeal to Jewish pro-Israel voters, citing Israeli officials who have hailed his transfer of defense and weapons technologies to Israel that even the previous Bush administration prohibited. Obama’s critics, meanwhile, have focused on his administration’s opposition to Israeli settlement expansion on the West Bank and a rocky personal relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Now Republicans believe they have found a way to attack Obama’s perceived strength on Israel. “President Obama’s rhetoric would have you believe he’s doing all he can for Israel’s security,” states the new RJC ad. “The reality is he wants to slash American support for Israel’s critical defense.”
To prove this point, the RJC turns to the Obama administration’s proposed budget, presented to Congress earlier this week. A close look at the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency’s finds that this year’s proposal calls for $99.8 million in missile defense cooperation compared to $106.1 million last year. “Shockingly, President Obama has proposed to dramatically cut critical support for Israel’s missile defense programs,” the RJC ad’s narrator continues.
The ad is spreading on the internet and will probably pop up time and again as the campaign moves forward and as both sides keep fighting over Obama’s relations with Israel.
As to the facts, RJC gets some of the basics right. The proposed budget does represent a decrease compared to last year’s aid. But calling a $6 million cut out of an overall Israel aid package of more than $3.2 billion “significant” is quite a stretch. It comes out to about 0.2%.
And then there is the question of context.
Jewish Democrats are already pushing back with their own fact check according to which Obama actually increased overall military aid to Israel by $25 million. This is also factually correct and also quite insignificant in the larger scheme of budget discussions (less than 1% of U.S. dollars going to Israel.) The National Jewish Democratic Council managed to dig up an interesting detail – President George W Bush also cut funding for missile defense cooperation back in 2003.
Israel, however, did not lose a dime from that cut and probably won’t this time around either. The Missile Defense Agency’s proposed budget is a starting point, not a finishing line. Members of Congress have routinely increased military aid to Israel before sending the budget off for signing. It will be a safe to bet that missile defense cooperation programs between the U.S. and Israel will be fully funded once the budget legislation process is completed.
An observer closely involved in the process suggested this was all part of Washington’s political game. “No one would ever touch aid to Israel,” the observer noted, “so why not show some budget restrain and let Congress increase it later?”
Israelis are also well aware of the fact that this $6 million debate is more about politics than about aid. “We’re not sounding the alarm bells, although clearly we want the full amount,” said an Israeli official, who like others would not speak on record because of the prickly political nature of the discussion.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, was the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.