Obama Israel Policy Takes Hits but Unlikely to Alter Jewish Vote

The Republican presidential candidates today slammed President Obama's Israel policy in successive speeches before the Jewish Republican Coalition, using a slew of recent off-the-cuff comments on Israel by administration officials as ammunition for their attacks.

Rep. Michele Bachmann accused Defense Secretary Leon Panetta for showing "disdain" toward Israel when he demanded last week that they "get to the damn table" to restart peace talks, and she blasted U.S. Ambassador to Belgium Howard Gutman of "justifying anti-Semitism" in a speech before the European Jewish Union, according to excerpts of her remarks.

Mitt Romney charged Obama with "chastising" Israel, raising the controversy over Obama's 1967 borders speech in May, and "insulting" Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in private comments to French President Nicolas Sarkozy caught by an open mic last month.

"These actions have emboldened Palestinian hardliners who now are poised to form a unity government with terrorist Hamas and feel they can bypass Israel at the bargaining table," Romney said. "President Obama has immeasurably set back the prospect of peace in the Middle East."

Rick Santorum even predicted the situation has given Republicans an edge, with " Jews all across this country now understanding that the values of the Republican Party are in concert with theirs, and we've seen a dramatic growth in Jewish involvement in the Republican Party."

But while the Republicans' politically charged claims might help rally conservative primary voters, including Jews, there are few signs their comments on Israel will alter the longstanding Democratic allegiance of Jewish voting bloc headed into 2012.

Polls show Obama, who won 78 percent of the Jewish vote in 2008, according to exit polls, retains strong support among American Jews, even if his standing has slipped compared to where it was four years ago.

Fifty-five percent of Jewish respondents to a September Gallup poll said they approved of Obama, a number 14 points above the national average.  Moreover, the decline in support for Obama since 2008 was no greater among Jews than the general electorate or other key constituencies, Gallup found.

In June 2011, Jewish Democrats reported 83 percent approval of Obama, according to Gallup.

Among Jews in Israel, Obama's favorability has even been on the rise, according to a Saban Center for Middle East Policy poll released last week . Fifty-four percent of Israeli Jews have a favorable view of Obama, up from 41 percent last year.

And in a survey of American Jews by left-leaning polling firm Gerstein, Bocian, Agne Strategies last month, Obama leads Romney in a hypothetical match up by nearly 40 points.

Obama campaign aides and several of his prominent Jewish backers concede the steady Republican criticisms have raised some eyebrows in the U.S. Jewish community, but they insist efforts to answer them have already been successful and will continue aggressively through next year.

"I don't think it's defensiveness, but it is a refusal to let the other side control the conversation by misrepresenting the president's actual accomplishments and positions. You have to respond to that," said Alan Solow, the immediate past chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and a major Obama donor.

Solow said the commonly cited accusations that Obama "demanded" Israel return to its 1967 borders or that he "snubbed" Netanyahu on visits to the White House are exaggerated. He also said the comments made by Gutman and Panetta were taken out of context.

"The issue is that the opponents of the president have very little to run on and therefore they take every opportunity they can to misrepresent or mischaracterize statements made by the administration," Solow said, noting as an example that Panetta's speech on the whole was emphatic about the U.S. commitment to Israel's security.

Solow and other Jewish Obama campaign financiers who declined to be identified also said the controversies have not dampened fundraising for Obama among wealthy Jewish elites, though they did not provide details.

"America's never been as supportive to the state of Israel" than since Obama took office, American Jewish Congress chairman Jack Rosen told an intimate gathering of Obama's Jewish donors who paid$10,000 each to mingle with the president in New York last month.

Even some Republican Jews concede that the politics of Israel won't translate to votes, because overarching U.S. policy - notwithstanding Obama's nuances - hasn't changed for decades.

"Even the staunchest Republican friends of Israel fail to win majorities among Jewish voters," wrote Michael Medved, a member of the Republican Jewish Coalition in a column last month titled "How Not to Win the Jewish Vote."   

He noted that Sen. John McCain espoused the same pro-Israel rhetoric of many of the candidates today only to lose the Jewish vote to Obama by a wide margin.

The reason, Medved says, is that many Jews are turned off by Republicans' passionate appeals to evangelical Christians.

"The voting behavior of American Jews conforms closely to the preferences of the irreligious and the unaffiliated precisely because so many of them are, in fact, theologically unaffiliated," he wrote. "This means that Republican identification as the more viscerally, consistently pro-Israel party won't attract American Jews as powerfully as they'll feel repelled by the GOP image as the more outspokenly religious party, and particularly the political home of enthusiastic Christian evangelicals.

"If Republicans do broaden their range of religious (and irreligious) representation, they might finally inspire the surge of new Jewish support they've sought for a generation," he said.

Until then, it looks like Obama, who has claimed to have "done more in terms of the security of the state of Israel than any previous administration," will likely keep the Jewish vote in his bag.

Obama will deliver the keynote address at the largest conference of American Jews - the Union of Reform Judaism - on Dec. 16 in Washington. The group is generally more liberal than the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, (AIPAC) which Obama addressed in May.