WASHINGTON – Hours after President Barack Obama gave a major speech on the Middle East, Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota flooded Iowa with automated phone calls and posted an online petition calling his approach “an insult to Israel.”
But Bachmann, a potential Republican presidential candidate, wasn’t necessarily appealing to the state’s tiny Jewish vote. Evangelical Christians were a richer target, voters who are staunchly pro-Israel and who might have been unnerved by Obama’s call for a peace agreement based partly on boundaries in place before Israel’s territorial gains in the 1967 war.
Bachmann’s move underscores the shifting politics surrounding Israel. A presidential candidate seen as confrontational toward Israel once might have feared a backlash from American Jewish voters. But Obama’s standing in the Jewish community remains strong because he has answered a threshold question: He has satisfied most American Jews that he is friendly toward Israel and committed to its security, polling shows.
For Republican candidates, though, the dust-up over Obama’s Middle East peace plans present a fresh opportunity of a different sort. Portraying Obama as a fickle friend of Israel is a way to gain ground in primary races dominated by vocal, pro-Israel conservative voters.
Many evangelicals ardently support Israel because they believe God promised Jews their own state.
With the fallout from Obama’s speech Thursday still crystallizing, Israel could be a focal point of the 2012 race in ways it hasn’t been in decades.
Obama is proof of the durable bond between Jewish voters and Democratic presidential candidates. As a relative unknown in the 2008 election, he still garnered 78 percent of the Jewish vote. That number tracks the Democrats’ performance in races dating back to 1992. The only question for the Democratic nominee is whether he’ll capture between 60 percent to 80 percent of the Jewish vote, political analysts say.
“It’s a traditional liberal vote and I just don’t see this (Obama’s speech) having much impact,” said Republican strategist Mark Corallo.
Obama is nonetheless taking no chances. Today, he’ll deliver a speech to the pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC, where he is expected to once again proclaim fealty to Israel’s security.
Conservative voices in the Jewish community are bristling over the speech. The Zionist Organization of America called on AIPAC to rescind the invitation to Obama. Even some of Obama’s longtime political colleagues were unsettled.
“You can’t unilaterally tell Israel you have to go back to ’67,” said Ira Silverstein, a Democratic Illinois state senator who once shared office space with Obama in the state capital.
Many mainstream Jewish voters seem more forgiving, rejecting the argument Netanyahu made in an Oval Office visit Friday that the pre-war boundary lines are “indefensible.”
They see Obama’s speech as a reiteration of a long-held U.S. vision of a Middle East in which the Palestinians have their own state. Polling shows that American Jews are open to compromises in the interest of Middle East peace. A survey commissioned by the American Jewish Committee last fall shows that 62 percent of the Jewish community believes Israel should be willing to dismantle at least some of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank as part of an accord with the Palestinians.
Even if Republican opponents can’t peel away Obama’s Jewish support, they can still gain traction from the dispute. Jewish voters tend to be turned off by the party’s conservative position on social issues, said Ira Forman, co-editor of the book “Jews in American Politics.” But Republican candidates can exploit the issue by rallying conservative Christian voters, a major force in the GOP primaries.
After Obama’s speech, Republican candidate Mitt Romney claimed that he had thrown Israel “under the bus.” Bachmann went further. Apart from the 150,000 automated calls to Iowa, she blitzed out half a million emails around the country asking people to sign her petition.