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.
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.
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.
two organizations interpreted the numbers quite differently.
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.
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.”
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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
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
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.
didn’t matter. What mattered was Iran.
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.
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.)
mind the clandestine effort to sabotage the Iranian nuclear project and kill
its leading nuclear scientists.
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.
never mind that a nuclear strike against Israel (with 20 percent of its
population Muslim) would make Iran a pariah within the Muslim world.
don’t see it that way. In early 2012, an over-the-top but
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.
mistake: Netanyahu successfully transformed the agenda of the U.S.-Israel
discussion throughout the entire 2012 election cycle.
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
summer of 2012, there was nothing left on the Israel agenda but Iran.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
New Israel Agenda worked for his favored candidate.
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.
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.