America’s obstruction of a Palestinian statehood drive at the UN has left President Barack Obama facing charges he watered down his Middle East peace push to appease disgruntled Jewish voters.
But polling data and electoral history suggests that American Jews do not make a president’s relations with Israel a litmus test for their vote and seem unlikely to desert Democrats for conservative Republicans in the 2012 election.
Still, experts say, Obama campaign aides, worried about any lost votes in what is shaping up as a close election, will be loathe to see the president spend more of his diminished political capital on a moribund peace process.
Obama’s relationship with Jewish voters — a key Democratic voting bloc — has been in the spotlight as his White House feuded with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and pressured Israel on issues like settlements.
Circumstantial evidence suggests he has paid a political price.
In 2008, Obama captured 78 percent of the Jewish vote and by the time of his inauguration, his approval rating with the community was 83 percent.
But his approval in the community had tumbled to just 54 percent by September, according to a recent Gallup poll.
A recent Republican victory in a fiercely Democratic district of New York where critics slammed Obama for “disparaging” Israel, left conservatives scenting an opening with Jewish voters.
“Don’t even think about throwing Israel under the bus,” said a Jewish voter in an Internet ad run by the Republican Jewish Coalition after the election.
In a Wall Street Journal opinion piece, commentator Dan Senor said Obama was “losing the Jewish Vote” because of the “most consistently one-sided diplomatic record against Israel of any American president in generations.”
And Internet news pioneer Matt Drudge splashed: “Revenge of the Jews.”
Democratic leaders argued the race, in which conservative orthodox Jewish voters were prominent did not carry national implications.
DISCONTENT WITH OBAMA
But Republican 2012 challengers sought to fan Jewish discontent with Obama: Texas governor Rick Perry accused him of appeasing Palestinians.
So when Obama said last week at the UN that the US bond with Israel “is unbreakable,” after vowing to veto the Palestinian statehood bid, some observers saw outside motivations.
“Now is the time in which foreign policy makes way for domestic policy. Palestine-out; the Jewish voters in America-in,” said a commentary in the Israeli Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper.
The White House said the veto threat was purely motivated by a belief that UN recognition will not bring a true Palestinian state, which can only be defined by negotiations with Israel, any closer.
The case that Israel policy is hurting Obama among Jews especially, is undermined by the fact that many demographic groups, not just Jews, are souring on Obama, including another key Democratic constituency, Hispanic voters.
And at 54 percent, Obama is at least 10 points more popular with Jewish voters, than he is among Americans as a whole.
TWO PER CENT
Exit polls in 2008 suggested only around two percent of voters nationwide are Jewish.
However, in vital swing states like Florida and Pennsylvania they could wield disproportionate power in hard-fought counties, so Obama aides will be wary of alienating even a small sample of voters.
“You have to neutralize as many of the possible negatives as you can,” said Daniel Levy of the New America Foundation, who argues Obama is now in a political box on Israel.
Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J-Street, a liberal pro-Israel group, said Obama’s aides may have drawn wrong conclusions.
“The idea that Jews are somehow fleeing in terms of their votes or their approval or support from Obama because of Israel — that is simplistic.”
“Unfortunately, I think that the way in which the Obama administration is approaching policy on this issue, is affected by their belief that they do have a problem.”
ISRAEL ‘DOWN THE LIST’
A Gerstein poll for J-Street in 2010, suggested Israel was well down the list of concerns for Jewish voters, with only 7 percent naming it as their top issue, compared to 62 percent motivated by the economy.
Ben-Ami also warned Obama aides may be overly influenced by powerful pro-Israeli lobby groups that he said do not reflect the entirety of American Jewish opinion.
Netanyahu has also forged strong links with conservative Republicans, further constraining Obama’s room for maneuver.