Suzanne Fields / September 23, 2011

Nations United in Annual Israel Mugging

It’s gang-up time on Israel again. Right on schedule, here come the huffers, puffers and pipsqueaks. Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, arrives in New York to demand a seat at the United Nations. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, right on cue, arrives from Iran in a cloud of bluster and bombast.

It’s all for show, of course, irritating in the way a noisy neighbor’s drunken fight with his wife at 3 in the morning can be irritating. But the show, such as it is, makes a convenient backdrop for what looks like an authentic hope for change in American presidential politics.

It’s gang-up time on Israel again. Right on schedule, here come the huffers, puffers and pipsqueaks. Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, arrives in New York to demand a seat at the United Nations. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, right on cue, arrives from Iran in a cloud of bluster and bombast.

It’s all for show, of course, irritating in the way a noisy neighbor’s drunken fight with his wife at 3 in the morning can be irritating. But the show, such as it is, makes a convenient backdrop for what looks like an authentic hope for change in American presidential politics.

Here come the Republicans in several Christian varieties riding rhetoric to the rescue of the Jews. The Democrats mostly squeak at a safe distance in the high weeds, their ranks divided by cheers for both sides. What’s different this time is that Jewish voters, the reliable yellow-dog Democrats, are suddenly showing a streak of unaccustomed independence.

If Anthony Weiner’s Brooklyn/Queens congressional district can go red after being the deepest navy blue since 1923, there’s Republican hope for turning Florida and Pennsylvania reliably red. That includes both the congressional and presidential races.

Jewish voters have been reliably partisan Democrats since they arrived on waves of immigration in the early decades of the 20th century. Most American Jews have never been to Israel and identify with the New Deal that defined the modern Democratic Party. “Many Jews can only vote with their left hands,” Jay Lefkowitz, who was an adviser to President George W. Bush. “It’s almost as if they think if they vote with their right hand it will fall off.”

But altered circumstances invite Republican presidential candidates to rush into neighborhoods where in the past even fools would not go. Mitt Romney calls the Palestinian ploy for statehood the direct result of “Obama’s repeated efforts over three years to throw Israel under the bus and undermine its negotiating position.”

Rick Perry, the governor of Texas who wears his evangelical Christian witness on his sleeve, calls the Romney rhetoric and raises. He reminds an audience of Jews in New York that he stands firmly in Judeo-Christian tradition, because “as a Christian (I) have a clear directive to support Israel.”

He assails Obama’s Middle East policy as “naive, arrogant, misguided and dangerous.” He offers the ultimate milk and honey as a sweetener: In a Perry administration, the United States embassy would be relocated to Jerusalem, something several presidents have blocked for years lest it intrude on something the diplomats insist on calling a “peace process.”

Perry’s critique of the president’s naivete echoes Hillary Clinton’s rhetoric in the presidential primaries of 2008, but as the president’s mouthpiece she can’t say that unless she resigns and runs against him. She has to be sorely tempted.

Romney and Perry both display a “gut instinct” to protect Israel, something a growing number of Jewish voters think President Obama doesn’t have. They think it required considerable chutzpah for Obama to suggest, as he did in speeches to audiences of Jewish and Israeli leaders, to engage in “serious self-reflection,” to “search your souls” to renew their attitudes toward peace. The only implication here is that Jewish “attitudes” toward peace need renewal.

The timing seems right for Republicans to act on what the polls tell them, that 75 percent of conservative Republicans sympathize with Israel, not the Palestinians. This is the highest number for all partisan groups, according to Pew Research Centers. Only 32 percent of liberal Democrats favor Israel in the poll, with 21 percent favoring the Palestinians. Among the coveted independents, 50 percent favor Israel and 12 percent favor the Palestinians.

More disturbing for the president as he heads toward 2012 is a poll by Secure America Now showing that only 43 percent of the Jews who voted for Obama in 2008 say they will vote for him next year. His poorest showing is among Jews under 40. If it holds, this suggests a radical change in Jewish loyalties.

The historian Paul Johnson observes how timing has been crucial to the birth and survival of Israel, from the original decision by the United Nations to declare a Jewish state in 1948. President Harry Truman (a Southern Baptist), equipped with that “gut instinct,” recognized Israel within minutes.

An Israeli reporter asked Rick Perry whether relations between the United States and Israel are at crisis point.

“The American people are for Israel,” the governor replied. “We may have an administration that feels differently. I hope you will tell the people of Israel that hope is on the way.”

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