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Monday, September 19, 2011

The pushback on NY-9

The Obama administration has begun a concerted effort to convince Israel's supporters that Obama is our friend and that the results of last week's special election in New York's 9th Congressional district were a fluke. This article from New York Magazine (here for those of you who would rather have eight screens than one) is typical (Hat Tip: Memeorandum).
For both Israel and the U.S., the timing could hardly be more miserable. With the Middle East apparently hurtling headlong into crisis, Israel finds itself increasingly isolated, beleaguered, and besieged: its embassy in Cairo invaded by Egyptian protesters, its relations with Turkey in tatters, its continued occupation of (and expansion of settlements within) the Palestinian territories the subject of wide international scorn. How wide? Wide enough that Abbas could credibly claim that 126 of the 193 U.N. member states support his statehood initiative. Yet despite the damage thwarting that bid might do to America’s standing in the region, the Obamans have never wavered in going balls-out for Israel.

And not for the first time, either. Again and again, when Israel has been embroiled in international dustups—over its attack last year on a flotilla filled with activists headed from Turkey to Gaza, to cite but one example—the White House has had Israel’s back. The security relationship between the countries, on everything from intelligence sharing to missile-­defense development to access to top-shelf weapons, has never been more robust. And when the Cairo embassy was seized and Netanyahu called to ask for Obama’s help with rescuing the last six Israelis trapped inside the building, the president not only picked up the phone but leaned hard on the Egyptians to free those within. “It was a decisive moment,” Netanyahu recalled after the six had been freed. “Fateful, I would even say.”

All of which raises an interesting, perplexing, and suddenly quite pressing question: How, exactly, did Obama come to be portrayed, and perceived by many American Jews, as the most ardently anti-Israel president since Jimmy Carter?


Netanyahu threw a nutty. Before he departed Israel for Washington, his office issued a statement saying that the “Prime Minister expects to hear a reaffirmation from President Obama of U.S. commitments made to Israel in 2004 … commitments [that] relate to Israel not having to withdraw to the 1967 lines.” The statement was extraordinary on multiple levels: in its sheer presumptuousness (“expects”?); in its willful misreading of Obama’s words (ignoring the part about land swaps); and in its total neglect of the many hard-line pro-Israel positions the president had advanced, including a scornful rejection of the Palestinian statehood bid at the U.N., sharp criticism of Israel-denying Hamas, skeptical questioning of its new alliance with Israel-accepting Fatah, and harsh condemnation of Iran and Syria.

The next day, Netanyahu delivered his on-camera lecture to Obama. What enraged the president and his team wasn’t the impudence on display; they could live with that. It was the dishonesty at the heart of the thing. “I’ve been in more than one meeting with Bibi where he used the same language to describe the outlines of a deal,” one official says. “It’s outrageous—attacking the president for something he didn’t say, claiming he was putting Israel’s security at risk for stating out loud a position Bibi himself holds privately.”

But Netanyahu knew he could get away with it—so staunch and absolute is the bipartisan support he commands in the U.S. Garishly illuminating the point, on the night before his speech to Congress, the prime minister attended the annual AIPAC policy conference in Washington, where he was the headline speaker at the event’s gala banquet. Before he took the stage, three announcers, amid flashing spotlights and in the style of the introductions at an NBA All-Star game, read the names of every prominent person in the room, including 67 senators, 286 House members, and dozens of administration and Israeli officials, foreign dignitaries, and student leaders. (The roll call took half an hour.) When Harry Reid spoke, he obliquely but unambiguously chastised Obama for endorsing the use of the 1967 lines as the basis for a peace deal: “No one should set premature parameters about borders, about building, or about anything else.” The ensuing ovation was deafening—but a mere whisper compared with the thunderous waves of applause that poured over Netanyahu.

The next day came his speech to Congress, in which he spelled out demands that were maximal by any measure: recognition by the Palestinians of Israel as a Jewish state as a precondition for negotiations, a refusal to talk if Hamas is part of the Palestinian side, an undivided Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and absolutely no right of return for Palestinian refugees. Taken as a whole, his whirlwind Washington visit provided a strong dose of clarity: With Barak having moved his newly formed Independence Party into Netanyahu’s governing coalition, its new stability has reduced to near zero the incentives for him to take the risks required for peace.


Even in the face of the most pessimistic (for Obama) reading of NY-9, Democrats will comfort themselves with two facts. The first is that, for all the outsize attention they command—and the earsplitting volume of the collective megaphone they wield—Jews make up about 2 percent of the national electorate. Too small a proportion, that is to say, to matter much to the overall popular vote.

Yet presidencies are not won nationally, but state by state (hello, Electoral College!). And there are at least two critical swing states in which the Jewish vote is large enough to be pivotal. The most obvious is Florida, where Jews make up about 5 percent of the electorate. But they also account for 4 percent of the vote in Pennsylvania, which Kerry won in 2004 by fewer than 200,000 votes. Without both of these states in his column, Obama will find it punishingly hard to be reelected.

The second ostensibly comforting fact for Democrats has to do with the trend lines of recent presidential-election history: Obama’s 78 percent of the Jewish vote, Kerry’s 74 percent, Al Gore’s 79 percent, Clinton’s 78 and 80 percent in 1996 and 1992, respectively. The implication here is that, in the end, the Jews will come home to Obama—mainly because they are overwhelmingly liberal and have nowhere else to go. And chances are this will prove true. But it’s worth pointing out that the last presidential incumbent who was thoroughly stigmatized, fairly or not, as being anti-Israel was Jimmy Carter—who in 1980 claimed just 45 percent of Jewish votes, with 15 percent going to John Anderson and the rest, 39 percent, to Ronald Reagan.

The trouble for Republicans is that, in the extant crop of candidates, there is no one who bears even a passing resemblance to Dutch. Though Rick Perry is as avidly pro-Israel as any politician alive—“If you’re our friend, we are with you,” he says. “I’m talking about Israel. Come hell or high water, we will be standing with you!”—his positions on almost every other issue are anathema to virtually every Jew to the left of Eric Cantor. And Perry’s theocratish tendencies have been criticized even by some who are pretty far right; the Christian rally he held in Houston not long before jumping into the race, “The Response,” was derided by Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League as a “conscious disregard of law and authority” because of the way it traversed the spheres of church and state.

Mitt Romney is an entirely different case. Within the Republican donor class, Romney is the strong favorite. He has actively courted the AIPAC crowd, staking out hawkish positions on Iran and pillorying Obama on Israel. The day before he opened his Florida headquarters earlier this month, Romney dropped in on a local AIPAC meeting in Tampa and was greeted with a standing O. But when it comes to winning over independent Jews or queasy Democratic ones, Romney may have done too effective a job in transforming himself from a pro-choice, pro-gay-rights moderate into a more conventionally conservative candidate. “He’s a phony,” a cheeky Democratic operative notes. “But for a lot of Jews, he may turn out to be just a little too convincing.”

Regardless of how Romney or Perry would play among Jewish donors and voters, both would likely make Obama’s approach to Israel a big part of a general-­election campaign. “Israel,” writes Marc Tracy on the Jewish-life website Tablet, “is the easiest way to come from the right and cast Obama as a dove; as out-of-step with American values; as otherwise untrustworthy on foreign and national-security affairs. Obama can’t, after all, be soft on Al Qaeda—he killed Osama bin Laden. He can’t be soft on dictators—the Arab Spring happened on his watch. He can’t be lacking in experience—he has been commander-in-chief these past years. He wasn’t coddling Pakistan or China or Russia, and he didn’t normalize relations with Cuba. But on Israel (and, by extension, Iran), Obama can be effectively painted … as having not stood up for democratic friends against evil foes.”

This argument may or may not prove effective, but either way, it’s perfect bullshit—as the administration’s hell-bent efforts to head off the Palestinian bid for statehood at the U.N. amply demonstrates. The evil foe in this case, to be clear, isn’t Abbas and the Palestinians. It is anything that poisons the prospects for peace, which the White House justifiably believes granting full statehood or even observer-state status in this way would likely do: by emboldening the Palestinians and making the Israelis feel cornered; by pushing both parties into the positions, in other words, in which they tend to behave worst. Israel would impose punitive measures in the West Bank. Congress would cut off funding for the Palestinian Authority, possibly causing it to collapse. Violence would escalate. Talks would be impossible. Total nightmare.
I want to point out a few things. First, that middle section is one of several articles in the media this week that are mainstreaming the Walt and Mearsheimer approach to US-Israel relations. Tom Friedman's piece in the New York Times on Sunday (critiqued here) is another, and Glenn Greenwald makes it quite explicit (which Walt is only too happy to acknowledge).
Isn't that exactly Walt and Mearseimer's main theme, what caused them to be tarred and feathered with the most noxious accusations possible? Indeed it is; here's how the academic duo, in The Israel Lobby, described the crux of their argument as first set forth in an article on which the book was based:
After describing the remarkable level of material and diplomatic support that the United States provides to Israel, we argued that his support could not be fully explained on either strategic or moral grounds Instead, it was due largely to the political power of the Israel lobby, a loose coalition of individuals and groups that seeks to influence American foreign policy in ways that will benefit Israel . . . We suggested that these policies were not in the U.S. national interest and were in fact harmful to Israel's long-term interests as well.
Is that not exactly the point which The New York Times' most "pro-Israel" columnist himself just voiced today? This thesis has long been self-evidently true. Indeed, many of the same Israel-loyal neoconservatives who accused Walt and Mearsheimer of promoting an anti-Semitic trope of "dual loyalty" -- by daring to suggest that some American Jews cast votes based on what's best for Israel rather than the U.S. -- themselves will explicitly urge American Jews to vote Republican instead of Democrat because of the former's supposedly greater support for Israel (you're allowed to argue that American Jews should make political choices based on Israel but you're not allowed to point out that some do so). Ed Koch just ran around the 9th Congressional District in New York successfully urging American Jews to vote for the GOP candidate based on exactly that appeal ("Koch, a Democrat, endorsed [the GOP candidate] in July as a way to 'send a message' to Obama on his policies toward Israel"). And in The Wall Street Journal this week, Rick Perry excoriated President Obama because of the small handful of instances where Obama deviated ever-so-slightly from the dictates and wishes of the Israeli government.

Walt and Mearshiemer merely voiced a truth which has long been known and obvious but was not allowed to be spoken. That's precisely why the demonization campaign against them was so vicious and concerted: those who voice prohibited truths are always more hated than those who spout obvious lies. That the foreign affairs columnist most admired in Washington circles just expressed the same point demonstrates that recognition of this previously prohibited fact has now become mainstream.
And this is how they hope to persuade us to vote for Obama? By touting the Walt and Mearsheimer line about the pernicious Israel Lobby?

Do they think we're really so stupid that we don't recognize what will happen the morning after the election if Obama wins?

Now look at the first and last sections I highlighted. The third section is acknowledging that yes, Obama has a problem. And the first section is wondering why. Well, it's pretty easy to explain why - I thought Dan Senor did a pretty good job of cataloging the reasons why in his Wall Street Journal article last week.

Some of you may recall that I thought Senor read too much into last week's Congressional election in New York. That's because I understood that NY-9 was 40% Orthodox Jews. That's not the case according to the New York article from which I quoted above by John Heilemann.
Within hours of Bob Turner’s victory over David Weprin, Wasserman Schultz—whose congressional district in South Florida is replete with Jews—was doling out the party line. “This is a special election that is purely reflective of who showed up to the polls and the makeup of the district,” she told the Washington Post, pointing in particular to its heavy concentration of Orthodox Jews. “There isn’t any comparison between districts like mine and New York 9.”

No doubt it is true that the district that was once the seat of Weiner, Chuck Schumer, and Geraldine Ferraro is unusual (and, as that list suggests, not just demographically). Not only is it roughly one-third Jewish, but of those Jews, roughly a third are indeed Orthodox. And Orthodox Jews are, to put it mildly, no one’s idea of a swing-voter group; instead they have become reliably Republican. (Among the Orthodox, a lowly 14 percent would reelect Obama.) Which would strongly suggest that the district is no coal mine, and its Jews are not canaries.

On the other hand, thanks in large part to the indefatigable Ed Koch, who endorsed Obama in 2008 but has now become one of his loudest (and loopiest) critics on Israel, the NY-9 election was framed to an unusual extent as a referendum not just on Obama but on his supposed betrayal of the chosen people. All over TV and the web was Koch, doing a squawky imitation of Romney, saying that the “Obama administration is willing to throw Israel under the bus in order to please the Muslim nations.” And, as state GOP chair Ed Cox pointed out to Politico’s Ben Smith, Koch’s appeal wasn’t to the Orthodox but to, in Smith’s paraphrase, “a still-more-sizable population of non-­Orthodox Jews in old-line neighborhoods like Forest Hills.” Who, in fact, aren’t all that different from the older Jews in Wasserman Schultz’s district.
So only about one ninth of the district is Orthodox. And that makes the fact that Weprin (an Orthodox Jew himself) lost far more significant. Maybe there's hope that the Jews will abandon Obama after all.

Read the whole thing.

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At 10:40 PM, Blogger Sunlight said...

OK. Now the light is shining on it. So do I have this straight? In NY9, 40% are self labeled as "Jewish". And only one-ninth of that 40% are self labeled as "Orthodox Jewish". And Mr. Weprin is self labeled as "Orthodox Jewish" himself. And the Jews who aren't Orthodox are presumably reform, conservative, reconstructionist, unafffiliated, etc.

So, given that these many non-Orthodox Jews voted non-(D), they may have cooled their enthusiasm for Obama. However, and I hate to even bring this up, if all these liberal stream or unaffiliated Jews would have had to vote "Orthodox" in order to vote (D), they may have voted (R) for the first time in their lives in order to not vote "Orthodox".

Does this make sense, Carl? I know it is inside baseball. Therefore, I would not count on the idea that "the Jews" are turning away from the (D) party (yet).

At 11:05 PM, Blogger Sunlight said...

Also, I heard Ed Koch on the radio... he is no less supportive of the (D) program than ever. It's only a message re Israel to him, not any acknowledgement that the (D)s are falling of the hard left cliff. He still hearts the (D)s.

At 12:43 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The only thing this proves is that Obama the arrogant narcissist still doesn't have a clue how his own actions have led to this.


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