America’s mighty pro-Israel lobby may be less durable than it looks
BARACK OBAMA was visiting London at the time. Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian prime minister, was in a Texas hospital with heart trouble. These gentlemen should count themselves lucky they were not there to hear Binyamin (“Bibi”) Netanyahu speak to the American Congress on the morning of May 24th. Watching might not have helped their blood pressure. Days after his quarrel over the 1967 borders with Mr Obama, Israel’s prime minister turned in a bravura performance in the absent president’s backyard, earning a score of standing ovations and making it clear that although presidents come and go, Israel enjoys the support of Republicans and Democrats alike on Capitol Hill.
What explains this enduring support? The “lobby”, for a start. This week, as more than 10,000 supporters flooded Washington for the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the lobby strutted its stuff. Mr Obama spoke on the first day of the meeting, before flying off to Europe. On the second day, 67 senators and 286 members of the House joined the 10,000 at the gala dinner—perhaps the biggest kosher nosh in history. On the third, after Mr Netanyahu’s triumph on the House floor, delegates ascended the Hill to conduct more than 500 separate lobbying meetings. Behold, the congressman that keepeth an eye on his Jewish vote shall neither slumber nor sleep.
That Jews count in American politics is not in doubt. They are conscientious voters and a formidable source of campaign financing. Hence the relish with which Republicans pounced on evidence of a rift between Mr Obama and Israel over the 1967 borders. Although the disagreement (insofar as it was not synthetic) was about emphasis rather than substance, Eric Cantor, the (Jewish) leader of the Republican majority in the House, was “very concerned”. Mitt Romney, supposedly leading the race to become the Republican presidential nominee in 2012, proclaimed that Mr Obama had “thrown Israel under the bus”.
So much for politics stopping at the water’s edge. The Republicans would dearly love to turn American policy on Israel into a wedge issue for 2012. But this may well be impossible. For a start, Mr Obama, who at AIPAC promised his “ironclad” support for Israel’s security, has already put America’s money where his mouth is. He has provided what Israel admits to have been unprecedented co-operation on defence, and clamped harsh sanctions on Iran. And even if he could somehow be portrayed as wildly hostile to Israel, the Democrats on the Hill cannot be. Smelling danger, many joined the Republican scolding of the president. Harry Reid, the Democrats’ leader in the Senate, did not explicitly repudiate Mr Obama’s reference to the 1967 borders, but made his displeasure plain. “A fair beginning to good-faith talks means that Israel cannot be asked to agree to confines that would compromise its own security,” he said.
More to the point, most Jews vote Democratic, and will probably continue to do so no matter what they think of the president’s attitude towards Israel. In this week’s Economist/YouGov poll, 33% of Americans thought that Mr Obama sympathised more with the Palestinians and only 11% that he sympathised more with the Israelis. Frank Luntz, another pollster, says that most American Jews oppose Mr Obama’s positions on Israel. Nonetheless, he predicts that an overwhelming majority of Jews will vote to re-elect the president in 2012. The explanation for this apparent paradox is simple. Most American Jews support Israel, but most do not care about it enough for it to affect the way they vote. Like other Americans, they are likelier to be influenced by past voting habits—and how they think the economy is faring.
In 2008, 78% of American Jews voted for Mr Obama, mostly because he was the Democrat. That proportion, cautions Bill Galston of the Brookings Institution, “is not Planck’s Constant”. Republicans are tantalised by Florida, a swing state with many older Jewish voters. Yet even there it is hard to see Israel as a decisive issue. Jews may not like Mr Obama’s stance on Israel, but Mr Luntz says that they are also unhappy about the influence of the tea-party movement on Republicans. Sam Abrams, a political scientist at Sarah Lawrence College in New York, cannot see any Republican being capable both of winning the nomination of the party in its current mood and appealing to Jewish voters.
Marrying out, and losing interest
Such trends are reassuring for Democrats. Perhaps surprisingly, it is AIPAC that has less reason to feel assured. This is because the attachment that American Jews feel to Israel is not only too weak, in most cases, to sway their vote. It may also be waning. Steven Cohen of the Hebrew Union College in New York is one of several scholars to say that apart from the Orthodox minority, younger Jews in America show less attachment to Israel than their elders.
Why this is happening is fiercely debated. One theory blames intermarriage; another that the young are alienated by Israel’s policies. Peter Beinart, the author in 2010 of a scathing critique of the Jewish establishment in the New York Review of Books, says that by drifting right and defending whatever Israel does, AIPAC and other leading Jewish organisations have become “intellectual bodyguards for Israeli leaders who threaten the very liberal values they profess to admire.” He says that a Zionism that emphasises Jewish victimhood and allows no empathy for the Palestinians is losing its resonance with younger Jews.
For the present, of course, AIPAC remains highly effective. It still towers over J Street, its doveish rival. Also secure for now is Israel’s standing in the United States. It is, after all, not only Jews who favour Israel over the Palestinians: just ask the evangelicals. As Mr Netanyahu told Congress, a close affinity binds the two nations. But if young American Jews really do turn away from Zionism, or are turned off by it, everything could one day change.Share