Most Jewish voters seem to agree with the substance of the President’s position on Israel. According to the Forward’s JJ Goldberg:
“ Israelis might not like the president’s hard-nosed stand on settlements, but American Jews don’t agree. Both of the  post-election surveys [of Jewish voters] actually gave him high marks for his performance in Israel and Middle East affairs. J Street found solid Jewish support for a two-state solution and for vigorous American leadership to bring the parties together — even if it means pressuring the two sides or openly criticizing Israel.”
Yet, when it comes down to dust, the issue of Israel does nothing but cost Obama Jewish votes.
Why is that so?
Every administration has given lip service to the idea that Israel should not further expand its West Bank Settlements, but none, not even the fairly Arabist George H.W. Bush, nor Bill Clinton, who negotiated the return of nearly the entire West Bank, ever actually took any concrete steps to see that America’s position on was implemented on the ground before negotiations were completed.
Obama did (and I think he was right to do so).
Further, I think Obama has sometimes been overoptimistic about the prospects for a solution (though those days seem to be over), I sometimes cringe at some of his rhetoric, and I don’t necessarily agree with each and every detail of what he’s done, but in the broad sense, it is hard to argue that he is wrong.
And most American Jews would appear to agree.
So, what is the problem?
As I pointed out, in somewhat less detail during the Q&A at a recent National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC) forum, the political problem is multi-dimensional.
The first dimension is that a significant minority of the Jewish community does not agree.
The second is that those who do agree with Obama don’t care as much.
Some of this is just lack of enthusiasm for their own position.
Perhaps, like me, they don’t like all the Obama bells and whistles.
Or they oppose the settlements, but still want to bomb Iran.
One can still oppose the settlements and favor bombing Iran. Outside of Bibi Netanyahu, the foremost Israeli proponent of bombing Iran is Ehud Barak, a man who most famously tried to get the Palestinian to accept a state comprising about 98% of the West Bank and Gaza, including parts of Jerusalem.
Or they know Obama’s right, but prefer the Alan Dershowitz-like position of opposing the settlements, but not actually wanting to do anything about it.
Or perhaps they’d like a two-state solution, but don’t see how we got from here to there. Mitt Romney had some thoughts on that recently:
I'm torn by two perspectives in this regard. One is the one which I've had for some time, which is that the Palestinians have no interest whatsoever in establishing peace, and that the pathway to peace is almost unthinkable to accomplish. Now why do I say that? Some might say, well, let's let the Palestinians have the West Bank, and have security, and set up a separate nation for the Palestinians. And then come a couple of thorny questions. And I don't have a map here to look at the geography, but the border between Israel and the West Bank is obviously right there, right next to Tel Aviv, which is the financial capital, the industrial capital of Israel, the center of Israel. It's—what the border would be? Maybe seven miles from Tel Aviv to what would be the West Bank…The other side of the West Bank, the other side of what would be this new Palestinian state would either be Syria at one point, or Jordan. And of course the Iranians would want to do through the West Bank exactly what they did through Lebanon, what they did near Gaza. Which is that the Iranians would want to bring missiles and armament into the West Bank and potentially threaten Israel. So Israel of course would have to say, "That can't happen. We've got to keep the Iranians from bringing weaponry into the West Bank." Well, that means that—who? The Israelis are going to patrol the border between Jordan, Syria, and this new Palestinian nation? Well, the Palestinians would say, "Uh, no way! We're an independent country. You can't, you know, guard our border with other Arab nations." And now how about the airport? How about flying into this Palestinian nation? Are we gonna allow military aircraft to come in and weaponry to come in? And if not, who's going to keep it from coming in? Well, the Israelis. Well, the Palestinians are gonna say, "We're not an independent nation if Israel is able to come in and tell us what can land in our airport." These are problems—these are very hard to solve, all right? And I look at the Palestinians not wanting to see peace anyway, for political purposes, committed to the destruction and elimination of Israel, and these thorny issues, and I say, "There's just no way." And so what you do is you say, "You move things along the best way you can." You hope for some degree of stability, but you recognize that this is going to remain an unsolved problem. We live with that in China and Taiwan. All right, we have a potentially volatile situation but we sort of live with it, and we kick the ball down the field and hope that ultimately, somehow, something will happen and resolve it. We don't go to war to try and resolve it imminently. On the other hand, I got a call from a former secretary of state. I won't mention which one it was, but this individual said to me, you know, I think there's a prospect for a settlement between the Palestinians and the Israelis after the Palestinian elections. I said, "Really?" And, you know, his answer was, "Yes, I think there's some prospect." And I didn't delve into it.
There’s actually not much I object to there. Romney implies all Palestinians oppose peace, and I don’t really think that is true, but there may be enough who do to stop it from ever happening.
And Romney does seem blithely unconcerned with assimilating the advice of the former Secretary of State (Rice? Powell? Baker?) he spoke with, which certainly does not inspire confidence or signal competence.
But Romney may be right that the time may not be ripe for a solution. And I’m not sure the President doesn’t agree.
My biggest problem with Romney is how that can is kicked.
Israel cannot continue as a state both Jewish and democratic if it continues to hold these territories.
The settlements are not the cause of the conflict; other issue must be resolved first before there is peace. But once there is a resolution, the settlements are an impediment to implementation of any workable solution. Their further expansion makes resolution of a solution even more difficult.
If Israel keeps expanding the number of settlements, we will come to a point where a two-state solution is no longer possible.
And that would likely be the death of Israel as a state which is both Jewish and democratic.
In my lifetime, bi-national and multi-national states have fallen apart in the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and Ethiopia.
In the Middle East, the foremost example of a multicultural state is Lebanon (though Iraq has also proven no day at the beach).
For Israel to stay a Jewish State under a One-State solution would require apartheid, ethnic cleansing or divine intervention.
So yeah, I oppose expanding settlements, and favor a two-state solution, but that doesn’t mean I’m happy about it.
More importantly Jewish voters who support a two-state solution don’t care enough to vote on that basis.
Jews who are support liberal Zionist positions are sometimes unwilling to punish candidates who hold anti-Israel positions. More accurately, they are often unwillingly to punish Democrats who, while not necessarily anti-Israel, differ with them on some important Israeli policy position, like Israel’s right to undertake aggressive self-defense measure when attacked from Gaza.
Take that, Yvette Clarke.
Further, they are often unwilling to punish candidates who hold right-wing Zionist positions out of sync with their own views.
Lefty Jews loved Anthony Weiner, whose positions on Israel put him to the right of Netanyahu. Many lefty Jews (including the WFP leadership) supported Rory Lancman, whose positions on Israel tracked those of crypto-fascist Avigdor Lieberman.
Many just care more about other issues.
The upshot is that Obama’s position on Israel may be the more popular one in the Jewish community, but it won’t get him any votes.
It only loses him votes, and it loses them for other Democrats as well.
A poll by the “so-left it may arguably not qualify as Zionist” Zionist group “J Street,” says that in 2010, Democrats won the votes of Jews who consider Israel the most important tissue by a margin of only 53% to 42%.
Those who discuss Israel every week supported Democrats by a margin of 50% to 48%.
And this is not exclusively an Orthodox phenomenon. If it were, I wouldn’t care. Those votes are probably not Obama’s regardless.
Worries about a loss of support for Democrats at the presidential level by Orthodox Jews are a bit similar to Republican worries about losing support among African-Americans.
But even with the Orthodox excluded, the J Street poll showed Jews who considered Israel the most important issue supported Democrats by lackadaisical margins; among Non-Orthodox Jews who discuss Israel every week, Democrats won by a margin of 54% to 44%.
But the problem goes even further than that.
The far right-wing branch of the Zionist community is not going to won over by Obama, even if he swallowed Dead Sea saltwater and pissed it out as pesedich Manischewitz Cream White Concord, while dancing the hora with Golda Meir’s ghost.
But, the majority of Jewish voters are found not among the Zionist right, but rather among the Zionist mainstream.
I think this covers a broad range, and some in this broad range have some complaints—Hell, I have some complaints.
Most of these complaints can be dealt with on an issue by issue basis, and I think that, when they are, most Jewish voters who factor Israel into their votes will find Obama either superior to Romney (based upon operational temperament in the actual day to day conduct of national security), or at least find Obama to be Romney’s substantive equal on the issues that matter.
Further many of the rest will find Obama only marginally less preferable on Israel, but not by enough to let the issue overcome their strong preference for Obama on other matters.
That is, if we can actually get down to specifics.
The specifics are (1) substantively, there is almost no difference between Romney and Obama on the matter of Iran (those who find Obama too soft on Middle East despots should perhaps consult Bin Laden, Khadafy or al-Awlaki), and (2) no American President has ever raised Israeli-American security cooperation to the level Obama has (which is why Obama told Sarkozy he has to deal with Netanyahu every day), and even Dubya wouldn’t sell Israel Bunker Busting Bombs, as Obama did.
Unless one believes is the suicide course of a Greater Israel where Jews are a minority population, ruling by forcing its will upon the majority, or, more likely being ruled (and probably pushed into the sea) by them –or alternatively, attaining the majority by the Milosevic method or the parting of the Red Sea, then one cannot really object to the Obama policy on Israel, except in small details.
But the problem is that while this debate can be won on the details among the voters who are in actual contention, the details are not really being discussed.
What is generally discussed is the non-specific allegation that Obama is anti-Israel, amplified by meaningless bullshit like the supposed personal dissing of Bibi (forgetting Bibi’s personal dissing of Obama) and boos on a nearly empty convention floor.
And non-specific allegations of being anti-Israel, when amplified by semi-credible actors (often with their own agendas) can be deadly.
One of the few cogent points made at the NJDC panel was that most Jews will not vote for someone they perceive as being anti-Israel.
Many might forgive some policy deviations (even in cases when they really shouldn’t), but if one can successfully convert those deviations and/or meaningless bullshit into a whispering campaign that a politician is anti-Israel, even liberal Zionists are going to have problems.
When Ed Koch, Dov Hikind and others start raising qualms about Obama and Israel, the specifics often get lost and converted into a non-specific and untrue allegation about Obama being anti-Israel, without reference to the actual issues.
This narrative is out there and it is damaging Obama among Jewish voters who may never learn that the qualms raised by these figures are about issues where they themselves have no differences with Obama, and sometimes even concerns issues where Obama has no differences with the Republicans.