Jewish public opinion and support of President Barack Obama has never been more contentious as when the president celebrated his eighth Passover and his seventh in the White House on Friday, April 3, 2015. The recent announcement of the Iranian nuclear weapons deal framework and continually combative relations with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who opposes the deal are a big part of the problem. Jewish Democrats have close ties with Israel, with dual loyalties, and even with being American and Jewish in that order for many that virulent rhetoric is just too much. Obama is facing a quandary, do what he wants or risk losing the Democrats a key demographic voter group in 2016, even Congressional Democrats are now voicing their concerns.
The tense relationship the Obama administration has with Israel has become worse and more divisive with the differences of opinions on the course of action with the Iran nuclear weapons deal. Conservatives found it ironic that Valerie Jarrett, who is Iranian was seated at the head of the Seder table. Just this past week Iran’s militia chief Mohammad Reza Naqdi said “erasing Israel off the map” is “non negotiable.” The remarks made prior to the Iran nuclear deal framework being finalized had led Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to demand that the final agreement must “include a clear and unambiguous Iranian recognition of Israel’s right to exist.” Netanyahu indicated on Friday, April 3 “Israel will not accept an agreement which allows a country that vows to annihilate us to develop nuclear weapons, period.” The Obama administration has already announced that they are denying Netanyahu’s request to consider even it as an element in negotiations. Still Netanyahu continues his campaign against the deal, which he feels, would be disastrous to Israel’s national security.
President Obama has become divisive in the American Jewish community because of his positions towards Israel, contentious relationship with Netanyahu and Iran nuclear weapons deal. Jewish leaders and voters are drifting from the Democrats because of these issues. A recent Wall Street Journal article published on April 3 and entitled “Cracks appear in Democratic-Jewish alliance in wake of Iran agreement” looked at this issue. A group of Jewish Democratic House members are concerned at the virulent rhetoric from the White House, and met with White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough to convey their concerns last week. They said that Obama has to do more to “increase his popularity with our constituents,” if they are going to “sell a very unpopular [Iran nuclear] deal to our constituents.” One of their main suggestions, that Obama should avoid “getting into a daily argument with” Netanyahu.
U.S. Rep. Nita Lowey (D., N.Y.) who attended the meeting later explained, “I was extremely disturbed by some of the overheated rhetoric that came out of the administration following the [Israeli] election. I conveyed directly to the White House that it’s time to dial back the temperature and affirm and strengthen the U.S.-Israeli relationship.” Twelve Jewish Democrats also met with Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes asking that Obama “soften his tone” when it comes to Israel and Netanyahu because “The aggressive approach… was a problem.” Politico’s Edward-Isaac Dovere believes it has somewhat worked since Obama and White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest, have “worked to cool down the rhetoric and public tension” but are “not letting go.”
The past couple of months the headlines on United States-Israel relations sounds more like tabloid fodder, celebrity catfights or schoolyard bullying that respectable relations between the leaders of allied countries, who are suppose to be close friends. With the whole situation, Obama and his administration have been the aggressors, filled with name-calling, boycotts, pressure, threats and an attempted ouster Netanyahu in the recent Israeli elections in March. Congressional Democrats in their united stand with the administration are also alienating their constituents with their actions, with over 50 boycotting Netanyahu Congressional address on March 3, and just because Jewish Democrats were among the boycotters is not helping their cause any. Democratic California Senator Dianne Feinstein has become the voice of opposition against Netanyahu and the Israeli Iranian position, the White House might think it takes away from any potential anti-Semitic sting, instead labels as self-hating Jew comes up and discredits any stand the White House hopes to make by at the same time softening the blow.
This behavior has been hurting Congressional Democrats at the polls. In Obama first presidential election in 2008, he received 78 percent of the Jewish vote; it was down to 69 percent. The drop was even greater when came to the midterm elections, in 2006 87 percent of Jews voted for Democrats, this past election in 2014 the number was down to 66 percent. According to the Pew Research Center as of 2014, 70 percent of Jews were registered as Democrats. Congressional Democrats that have been staunch supporters of Israel are going to have an easier time at reelection than those that boycotted Netanyahu’s address to Congress.
According to a new Gallup Poll published on Friday, April 10 Obama’s approval rating among American Jews is almost at its lowest point ever, but still 8 percent “above the national average,” the lowest margin of difference during the Obama presidency. For the first quarter of 2015, the Jewish approval is at 54 percent, while the national average is 46 percent. In the last quarter of 2014, it was at its lowest with Jewish approval rating at 52 percent and the national average at 42 percent a 10- point difference.
Democrats are looking at former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as their great white hope, although associated with the Obama administration she left early enough to not have been tarnished from his downward spiral during his second term. Clinton waited to wade in on the Obama Netanyahu rift, by tactfully avoiding any sides, stating, “We need to all work together to return the special US-Israel relationship to constructive footing, to get back to basic shared concerns and interests…. We must ensure that Israel never becomes a partisan issue.” She has expressed support for the Iran deal, but her rhetoric much less brash and seemingly for neutral and malleable to any way that would most benefit her upcoming presidential campaign. Clinton has called the deal “an important step toward a comprehensive agreement that would prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.” Clinton leads all Democrats in early 2016 polls and all Republican candidates in the field as well.
Going into 2016 Republicans have a distinct advantage, their strong and ever growing support for Israel and Netanyahu and with an opposition to the Iran deal that is just as strong. Republicans are seeing an opportunity to cash on Jewish disillusionment with the Democratic Party. Republican Congressional leadership is in a lovefest with the Israeli prime minister with two groups meeting with him over their Easter recess trips to Israel. One group from the Senate was lead by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-KY, the other was led by Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-OH. Boehner was the one that invited Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress on Israel, risking and receiving the White House’s ire. Just last week, Boehner was criticizing Obama’s “reprehensible animosity” towards Netanyahu. When Boehner and Netanyahu met they seemed liked BFF’s, buds while Obama recently describes his relationship with Netanyahu as “businesslike” the same words used to describe his relations his Russian president Vladimir Putin. Considering the cold relations with Russia over Ukraine, it is definitely not a complementary comparison.
Then there is the support for Israel oozing out of the Republican presidential candidates, both declared, about to and potential. Republicans including candidates former Florida Governor, Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, Senators Marco Rubio of Florida, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas all rushed to congratulate Netanyahu on his election victory, publicly on their social media accounts and included solidarity on the Iranian issue. This included Speaker Boehner who congratulated Netanyahu twice and 2012 GOP Presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who tweeted and phoned congratulating his friend.
It took the Obama Administration over a day until they sent Secretary of State John Kerry to phone Netanyahu, and then it President Obama two days to do the same, both calls criticized the Israeli leader on some of his pre-election rhetoric, where he promised there would be no Palestinian state during his premiership. In the interim before Obama’s confrontational phone call the administration castigated Netanyahu. In the aftermath, Obama and the administration want to reassess their position and support of Israel in the United Nations, and might support a unilaterally call for a Palestinian state in the UN Security Council without peace talks. Netanyahu dial backed, saying he still supported the two-state-solution, but Obama did not believe him.
In contrast, the Republicans, such as Rubio took to the Senate floor giving a blistering and fiery speech against President Obama “making a historic mistake” in his treatment of Israel, risking its national security. Rubio called the Obama’s shift in Israeli policy “outrageous,” “irresponsible” and “dangerous.” Rubio issued a rallying cry to support Israel, “No people on Earth want peace more than the people of Israel. No people have suffered more at the hands of this violence and this terrorism than the people of Israel. And they need America’s support, unconditionally.”
Meanwhile, during his speech declaring his presidential candidacy, Senator Cruz made his punchline, his position solidly in support of Israel and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, “Instead of a president who boycotts Prime Minister Netanyahu, imagine a president who stands unapologetically with the nation of Israel,” The line received the most applause and after which the audience erupted chanting “USA, USA.” Although the is an opening for Republicans to increase their percentage of Jewish votes, Israel might not be enough to convert the community en masse to the Republican camp, positions on social issues are still an obstacle.
The growing support for Israel from Republican lawmakers has according to recent New York Times article led to more wealthy hawkish Jewish donors supporting the Republican Party and candidates. The article entitled “G.O.P.’s Israel Support Deepens as Political Contributions Shift” argued that donations and Republican support for Israel is related, Marc Felgoise, of the Philadelphia Israel Network, Republican lawmakers “are trying to cater to people who are ultimately going to support them.” Among those increasing their donations, include longtime conservative William Kristol’s Emergency Committee for Israel, New York hedge fund billionaire Paul Singer, and Boston based billionaire Seth Klarman, never mind perennial supporter Las Vegas Casino titan Sheldon Adelson. Republican Party historian Geoffrey Kabaservice told New York Times “Israel did not traditionally represent that kind of emotional focus for any element of the Republican Party. But the feeling now is that it is a winning issue, as it helps them to appear strong on foreign policy.”
Historian Josh Zeitz argues the opposite in his article in Politico entitled “No, Jews Aren’t Defecting to the GOP Republicans have tried to woo them many times before. It’s never worked.” Zeitz looked at how in political history throughout the 20th century Jews as a majority have been liberal and loyal to the Democratic Party. Despite the GOP’s increased support for Israel Zeitz in his rather bias assessment and analysis, does not believe American Jewry will ever defect en masse to the Republican Party. Zeitz noted, “If it’s difficult, but possible, to identify the roots of American Jewish liberalism, it’s less clear why Jews have maintained their affinity for the Democratic brand a century or more after their ancestors first set foot on Ellis Island.” Zeitz refers to liberal organization J Street who conducted a survey that found that “45 percent of American Jews identified as liberal or progressive, 36 percent as moderate and 19 percent as conservative.” Zeitz also noted that for the midterm 2014 American Jewish voters listed domestic issues such as “economy,” “health care,” “Social Security and Medicare,” “the environment,” “education” and “taxes” as outweighing importance as opposed Israel and the Middle East.
Reaching the Iran nuclear deal framework on Thursday, April 2 was just as incendiary and divisive issue. As Secretary of State Kerry and President Obama hailed the deal, saying in a Rose Garden speech “It is a good deal, a deal that meets our core objectives. This framework would cut off every pathway that Iran could take to develop a nuclear weapon…. If Iran cheats. the world will know it.” President Obama did acknowledge, however, that Netanyahu and he “don’t agree” on the deal. One by one Republicans opposed it, with Speaker Boehner responded, “The parameters for a final deal with Iran represent an alarming departure from the White House’s initial goals. My longtime concerns about this potential agreement remain, but my immediate concern is the administration signaling it will provide near-term sanctions relief. Congress must be allowed to fully review the details of any agreement before any sanctions are lifted.” All the Republicans candidates in contention should united with the party against the deal.
The deal only set up a greater divide between Israel and President Obama. Regardless of party, all Israel’s party leaders, and the cabinet stood against the deal, even leftist Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog. Netanyahu has called the agreement “a dream deal for Iran but a nightmare deal for the world.” and it “would pose a grave danger to the region and to the world and would threaten the very survival of the State of Israel.” On Thursday, April 2 Obama phoned Netanyahu about the deal in what was a heated conversation, where the Israeli leader told Obama, “This deal threatens the existence of the State of Israel. Just two days ago, Iran said that the annihilation of Israel was nonnegotiable. This deal legitimizes Iran’s nuclear program, it will strengthen Iran’s economy and increase its aggressiveness and terror activities in the region and beyond. This deal will not block Iran’s path to the bomb; this deal paves the way to it.”
Netanyahu made the rounds on Sunday, April 5 of all the major US political talks shows on CNN, NBC, and ABC trying to make his case against the Iranian deal as it now stands. Netanyahu claimed the deal gives Iran a “free path to the bomb,” Netanyahu told ABC News “I think there is still time to reach a good deal, a better deal. I think what is required is to hold firm, to increase the…pressures until a better deal is achieved, one that significantly rolls back Iran’s nuclear infrastructure and one that doesn’t lift the restrictions on…Iran’s nuclear program until they stop their aggression in the region.”
Obama was also doing interviews on Sunday, April 5 trying to sell his deal. In an interview with the New York Times‘ Thomas Friedman, President Obama might have been taking Congressional Democrats advice dialing down his rhetoric tone towards Israel. The president’s most quoted line of the interview was “I would consider it a failure on my part, a fundamental failure of my presidency, if on my watch or as a consequence of work that I’ve done, Israel was rendered more vulnerable.” Obama promised that no matter what the US would be there for Israel, saying “What I would say to them is that not only am I absolutely committed to making sure… that if Israel were to be attacked by any state, that we would stand by them.” The president even showed some understanding for Netanyahu’s position, where there seemed to be no sympathy before, “I have to respect the fears that the Israeli people have,” he added, “and I understand that Prime Minister Netanyahu is expressing the deep-rooted concerns that a lot of the Israeli population feel about this.”
Rabbi Howard Buechler “of the Dix Hills Jewish Center in New York” told the Wall Street Journal, “At this moment in time, many American Jews who have consistently voted Democratic are beginning to waver in that support, because they’ve felt the bedrock relationship between Israel and this administration has been severely shaken.” President Obama might think a yearly Passover Seder and statement each Jewish holiday is enough to show he supports the country’s Jews, but it is not. The everyday actions and treatment towards Israel, the Jewish homeland that will have a more lasting effect when the community decides in history whether Obama was a friend or foe to the American Jewish community.
Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS is a journalist, librarian, editor, & historian. She writes regularly about news, politics, education, and Judaism for Examiner.com. She is the editor of Academic Buzz Network, and History Musings. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program.