When Israel Stars in U.S. Campaigns – Is It Good for the Jews?

Even when there is no justification to bring Israel as an issue into Congressional election campaigns, it is still very often there.

Delaware is a tiny state. Jews comprise only about 1.6 percent of its population (843,524 citizens), and Israel wasn't an issue on the agenda during the recent candidates' debates.

Obama at White House, Reuters, October 15, 2010

But when asked by Haaretz about his position on Israel, Delaware Senatorial candidate Chris Coons replied: "I support a close alliance between the U.S. and Israel, Israel is one of our strongest allies in the world and our most important ally in the Middle East, and I think we need to continue to work hard to support Israel and Israel's choices and decisions as it tries to move forward in a responsible peace process."

Delaware Tea Party candidate Christine O'Donnell, who has been at the center of much recent media focus, said in an interview with Fox that the U.S. has to "rebuild and repair our relationship with Israel."

"Israel has traditionally been a strong ally. I don't believe that this administration has been as friendly and supportive to Israel as America could be and as America should be."

"Israel deserves our respect. They've been an ally. [U.S. President Barack] Obama scolded them. You don't scold one of our allies for doing what they need to do in their own national interest. We can do more because we need Israel," she added.

This is just a small example of how Israel is present even in races in which there is no particular reason to mention it.

Israel is far from topping the agenda of Jewish American voters as well: in a recent AJC poll, 87 percent defined unemployment as a significant issue, 80 percent mentioned healthcare – compared with 61 percent who mentioned Israel. However, in several races, Israel was injected aggressively into the election campaigns.

The Republican Jewish Coalition attacked several candidates for Senate for their alleged anti-Israeli stance with ads such as "When Israel needed her most, Barbara Boxer was silent" in California, "Alexi Giannoulias: troubling pattern of funding anti-Israeli groups" in Illinois, "When it comes to supporting Israel, Joe Sestak is a big problem" or a video claiming that "Sestak told Obama to pressure Israel" in Pennsylvania. The RJC spent over $1 million dollars on a single ad campaign against Sestak. Some of the ads running in Ohio, Nevada, Washington and Missouri linked Obama's agenda to the democratic candidates' disastrous potential to harm the Jewish "mishpaha" or family.

The non-Jewish Emergency Committee for Israel, established this summer, runs ads of its own, focusing, among other things, on "Gaza 54" - a letter signed by members of Congress calling on President Obama to work to ease the blockade on Gaza.

Israel is not too happy about this tendency. "Israel has become a partisan issue in the U.S., and this political Ping-Pong is bad for us," Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Michal Oren said to Haaretz.

David A. Harris, President and CEO of the National Jewish Democratic Council, says that "ECI and other far-right organizations are sadly transforming the U.S.-Israel relationship into a partisan wedge issue, through distortions and outright lies, as demonstrated by mainstream American media. It's a nasty game, and beyond targeting pro-Israel Democrats, the real victim is the historic, bipartisan U.S.-Israel relationship that is truly essential. These groups see a short-term political gain by playing this dangerous game, but they are tragically missing the damage they are doing to the U.S.-Israel relationship in the process. We refuse to play this game; we will not turn Israel into a political football."

Republican Jewish Coalition’s Matt Brooks disagrees. "The RJC holds itself to a high standard in political discourse. All of our ads and materials are thoroughly sourced and cited, we don't engage in ad hominem attacks, and we show respect for our audience and our opponents. I can’t say the same for everyone else, unfortunately. But I think overall the conversation has been reasonably civil, and we speak out when someone - on either side of the aisle - crosses the line into uncivil or nasty comments."

He is confident that "in the end, the debate about Israel in this country will only strengthen support for Israel, because it highlights the importance of Israel to American interests and the value of a strong U.S.-Israel alliance."

"Israel is not a partisan issue in the usual Republican/Democratic way," he adds. "Support for Israel is strong on both sides of the aisle. The split is between the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, who define 'pro-Israel' the way J Street does, and the rest of us," he says.

"It is an issue in these elections because recent polls show that support for Israel in this country is strong and deep. President Obama's policies toward Israel have not demonstrated the kind of support for Israel that previous administrations have shown, and both Jewish and non-Jewish voters are definitely concerned about that," he concludes.

However, even Brooks admits that the drop in support for Obama among the Jewish voters is not necessarily due to the Israel-related issues. "Israel is an important issue for Jewish voters, but the high unemployment, rising taxes, exploding national debt, the government takeover of health care - these are all issues that are very troubling to Jewish voters, as they are to the majority Americans," he says. "The hope and change that President Obama promised us in 2008 turned into hoping to have a little change left for your family after taxes, health insurance, and housing come out of your paycheck. It's a very difficult economy right now and the policies that President Obama and the Democrats in Congress have put in place have made things worse for American families, not better."

The National Jewish Democratic Council's Harris interprets the polls a bit differently. "Like all presidents, President Obama's approval rating among Americans has risen and fallen at different times - and American Jews are, after all, Americans. But most importantly, the largest ongoing survey sample we have - by Gallup - has repeatedly demonstrated that American Jews remain consistently more supportive of President Obama than Americans in general, and by the same margin since the day he was elected President. This consistent added support that America Jews give to President Obama is nothing short of remarkable."

Jewish voters tend to be more involved – the AJC survey revealed a remarkable 92 percent who said that they intend to vote next week. Despite the high motivation, Jewish voters are unlikely to turn by some miracle into a decisive vote in hundreds of races in the midterm elections. But some definitely ask what will happen to Obama’s Middle East policy the day after the election. If he loses the House majority and his domestic agenda becomes stuck, will he concentrate more on foreign policy, returning to exert a pressure on the Israeli government? Will he keep the 2012 presidential election in mind and concentrate on managing the conflict rather than trying to solve it in one year?

"A Republican majority in the House will only strengthen the alliance between the U.S. and Israel. If you look at the votes and actions of Republicans and Democrats in Congress, Republicans are far and away more likely to vote for resolutions, sign letters, make statements, and vote for bills that strengthen Israel and strengthen our relationship with our best ally," says Brooks.

"American Jews will very likely be disproportionately represented in the American electorate on Election Day. We continue to work hard to ensure that Jewish voters - as a base of the Democratic Party - know the facts and get out to vote. We continue to believe that Democrats will maintain control of both the House and the Senate," Harris declares.