Fall 2012, Vol. 14, No. 2

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Spiritual Politics
Mark Silk's blog
on religion and politics 


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Table of Contents   

From the Editor:
Democrats Find Their Inner None

The Saints Come Marching In

I am a Mormon?

How Mormons and Evangelicals Became Republicans

Rowan Williams Lays Down His Burden

Honey, I’m Shrinking the Church

The Struggle to Keep Hospitals Catholic

“Religious liberty” in Court

The Democrats Dump God

Ayn No Way: Paul Ryan’s Problem

Netanyahu’s Anti-Obama Campaign

Varieties of Dylan’s Religious Experience




Netanyahu's Anti-Obama Campaign
by Ron Kiener

According to the 2012 National Election Exit Poll (NEEP), American Jews voted overwhelmingly Democratic as they usually do, preferring Barack Obama to Mitt Romney by 69 percent to 30 percent.

But the margin of Jewish support was down a good bit from 2008, when Obama prevailed over John McCain by 78 percent to 22 percent. Immediately, partisans began debating the significance of the shift, supplementing the NEEP with targeted polls of their own.

The pro-Obama lobby J Street and the pro-Romney Republican Jewish Coalition each came up with comparable national results, as well as comparable results in focused surveys of Jews in the battleground states of Florida and Ohio.

But the two organizations interpreted the numbers quite differently.

Based on its own internal numbers, J Street contended that Obama had won only 74 percent of the Jewish vote in 2008. The down-tick of 4-5 points  this year was thus, for J Street, insignificant—either perfectly aligned with a slight and uneventful underperformance of President Obama in other segments of his winning coalition or (less believably) within the margin of error.

For the RJC, relying on the NEEP, the margin was highly significant. As Nathan Guttman wrote in the Forward November 7, “A 9 percentage point shift, as Republicans see it, would indicate major success for efforts to sway Jewish voters away from the Democratic side.”

So the meaning of Obama’s performance with Jewish voters in the 2012 election has itself become a point of contention, one that will dictate the terms of the messaging of Jewish voters into upcoming election cycles.

Historically, American Jews have been a stable liberal component of the Democratic big tent since the re-election of Woodrow Wilson in 1916, when they split their vote between Wilson and the Socialist Eugene Debs. It’s been 96 years, then, since they gave less than 70 percent of their votes to a winning Democratic candidate. (Only once in all that time—Jimmy Carter’s failed three-way reelection contest in 1980—have fewer than half voted for any Democratic candidate.)

Interpreting the Jewish vote these days requires careful analysis of the importance of Israel for Jewish voters. Overall, Israel is the decisive issue for only some 10 percent of American Jews—largely the Orthodox. But that is not to say that Israel doesn’t matter at all to the others.

Obama entered the White House in January 2009—the day after Israel concluded a month-long ground war on Gaza dubbed “Operation Cast Lead.” The veteran Obama diplomatic team hoped that in February 2009 the Israeli democracy would choose to continue with a centrist government ready to engage in peace processing.

When the political dust had settled in Israel, however, a less malleable right-wing coalition under the guidance of Binyamin Netanyahu came to power. For the next 38 months the Obama administration contended with Israeli and Palestinian camps that were singularly uninterested in accepting the Obama team’s terms of engagement. The events of the Arab Spring, which reached a crescendo in the spring of 2011, caused the Israelis and Palestinians to dig in their heels even further.

By May of 2011, with the resignation of special envoy George Mitchell, the Obama administration effectively gave up trying to facilitate an Israeli-Palestinian peace process. With US domestic elections looming, and with no immediate Israel-Palestine crisis at hand, all parties went back to their respective tents to sulk.

As the peace process faltered, a second dangerous and long-simmering issue came to preoccupy Israel-US relations: the continued effort of Iran to enrich uranium and develop a nuclear bomb, and the threat that Israel would militarily curtail that effort.

Thus, by the fall of 2011, as the Republican primary contenders began their slog towards Tampa, the question of Israel-centered domestic U.S. politicking had less to do with the decades-long quest for a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict and more to do with the Israeli-Iranian standoff. Both American Jews and Christian Zionists were very carefully listening to what the two parties and their candidates had to say.

Netanyahu, who lived for decades in the United States and is intimately familiar with American society, occasionally made forays into the 2012 presidential contest. The leader of the Likud party had developed extensive ties with Republicans and evangelicals during his first stint as Prime Minister in the late 1990s, as he was being pressed by the Clinton administration to save the foundering Oslo peace process.

Given a second chance to lead his nation, Netanyahu confided to an Israeli diplomat in 2009 that part of his problem with Obama was that “I speak Republican.” Well aware that direct intervention into American presidential politics is supposed to be out of bounds for a foreign leader, Netanyahu nevertheless made his disdain for Obama and his preference for Romney widely known. Indeed, in September the pro-Romney SuperPAC SecureAmericaNow began airing a commercial on select cable outlets in Florida that exclusively featured Netanyahu’s critique of the Obama approach to the Iran issue.

Something had changed. In campaigns past, whenever Israel was mentioned it was in the context of the thorny problems associated with the on-again, off-again Israeli-Palestinian peace process: Israeli settlements, Palestinian intransigence, refugee status, and the fate of Jerusalem. In 2012, thanks to a coordinated effort by Netanyahu, all things Israel focused on one topic only: the “existential threat” of a nuclear-tipped Iran committed to the Hitlerian destruction of the Jewish state.

Certainly, there were moments when the old-school Israel issue cropped up. In the December 2011 Republican primary debates, ex-House Speaker Newt Gingrich reiterated his contention that the Palestinians are an “invented people”—terrorists not deserving of international financial support and sympathy. It was the only time in the primary season that Israel/Palestine came to the fore, as Romney and the other candidates positioned themselves either to Gingrich’s left or right.

There was also a brief moment in early September when the future of Jerusalem as debated in the Democratic platform overwhelmed a single daily news cycle. (See Samuel Livingston’s article on page 20.)

But mainly, once the peace process was declared comatose in the early summer of 2011, all Israeli-oriented political messaging centered on Iran, the looming threat of Islamic fundamentalism, and the apocalyptic nightmare of a nuclear conflagration in the Middle East between Iran and Israel.

Even before the summer of 2011 the Netanyahu team was laser-like in attempting to change the terms of the debate. Every time the Obama administration wanted to talk with Netanyahu about the Arab-Israeli peace process, Netanyahu changed the subject. For its first 24 months, the Obama administration tried to stay focused on what it would take to jumpstart the moribund peace process; and at every turn the Israelis responded with the “existential threat” of a nuclear-capable Iran.

One of the main venues for pro-Israel Republican messaging was the Republican Jewish Coalition, a new group funded principally by casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. The RJC used the web and social media to excellent effect, particularly with its “buyer remorse” video campaign showcasing American Jewish voters, including many Democrats who voted for Obama in 2008 and were now switching to Romney, often over the issue of Israel’s confrontation with Iran. 

During the campaign, the Obama team and its Jewish surrogates were on the defensive—the political equivalent of “no, I don’t beat my wife.” Typical of this defensive stance throughout 2011 and 2012 was J Street, which was created in 2008 ostensibly as an alternative to the far more broad-based AIPAC.

Throughout 2012, J Street reactively countered the Romney accusations with a weighty list of counterarguments—citing Israeli politicians and analysts who proclaimed Obama the friendliest, most security-enhancing resident of the White House in the entire annals of the Israel-US relationship.

It didn’t matter. What mattered was Iran.

Never mind that absolutely nothing has changed in the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate that Iran was years away from a bomb, and that the Iranian leadership hadn’t yet made a decision to go that route.

Never mind that the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had repeatedly stood by his 2004 fatwa that nuclear weapons are immoral. (Yes, such a fatwa could be rescinded, but in the land of vilayet-i-fagih—the rule of the religious jurist—such a thing is a rare occurrence.)

Never mind the clandestine effort to sabotage the Iranian nuclear project and kill its leading nuclear scientists.

Never mind that an attack on Iran—Israeli or American—would lead to a surge of nationalist pride for the currently unpopular regime inside Iran, and possible attacks worldwide on American hard and soft targets, and drive the price of oil through the roof.

And never mind that a nuclear strike against Israel (with 20 percent of its population Muslim) would make Iran a pariah within the Muslim world.

Israelis don’t see it that way. In early 2012, an over-the-top but high-production-value Cloverfield-style video popped up on the Internet, portraying from a ground-level perspective a nuclear attack on Jerusalem (not only the capital of the Jewish state but also the place of the third holiest spot in Islam, the Dome of the Rock). Israeli government officials—at least the ones who hadn’t resigned over the Iran issue—kept repeating the “existential threat” mantra.

Make no mistake: Netanyahu successfully transformed the agenda of the U.S.-Israel discussion throughout the entire 2012 election cycle.

Israeli settlements were no longer a burning issue, a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian standoff was no longer the benchmark by which candidates distinguished themselves, and the failure of Palestinians to constitute a unified political authority was no longer deemed important. Israeli-Palestinian talks were simply out of the question for the entire election cycle.

By the summer of 2012, there was nothing left on the Israel agenda but Iran.

During the presidential campaign the main question was whether Israel would go it alone, or cajole the United States to take the lead in a military strike on Iranian nuclear installations. For Romney, Obama had “thrown Israel under the bus.” For Obama, it was a presidential insistence that “the U.S. has Israel’s back.”

In the October foreign policy debate between the two contenders, the 15 minutes allocated to things Israel dealt exclusively with Iran. Netanyahu’s reformulation of the Israel debate in American domestic politics was complete. 

There is some precedent for this kind of Israeli enterprise. In 1956, Prime Minister David Ben Gurion proposed to the British Foreign Secretary and the French Defense and Foreign Ministers a grandiose re-ordering of the Middle East that would bring an end to the Nasser regime in Egypt and dissolve the kingdom of Jordan, leaving Israel with its West Bank and Iraq with its East.

In the end, the French and British agreed to a more limited operation designed to unseat Nasser and return the Suez Canal to Western hands. The ensuing 1956 Suez War was a particular disaster for the French and British, and an embarrassment to Ben Gurion for years to come. 

For this second reordering of allies’ priorities, there were two principal Israeli government actors: Netanyahu and his defense minister, the former prime minister Ehud Barak. For the American audience, Netanyahu played bad cop; Barak (who was actually a strong proponent for military intervention), good cop.

Throughout 2012, the defense minister teased the Americans with the pitch that he was all for a comprehensive Palestinian-Israeli settlement but couldn’t imagine a clear path to that goal without eliminating the destabilizing threat of a nuclear Iran. For his part, Netanyahu would have none of it. Charged with the historic mission of saving the Jewish people from a Nazi-like existential threat, he wouldn’t even broach the possibility of a deal.

And the New Israel Agenda worked for his favored candidate.

Romney garnered a level of support among Jews one point short of Ronald Reagan’s in 1984 and within five points of George H. W. Bush’s in 1988—at 30 percent the strongest showing for a Republican contender in six presidential elections. It is fair to say that no single foreign policy issue did more to change votes than the reframing of the Israel message in the 2012 campaign.

Then, days after the election, Israel opened an offensive against the rocketeers of Gaza, wiping away in a moment four years of avoiding the conflict. Suddenly, the chronic problem of Palestine was back with a vengeance.


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