Ahead of the November presidential elections, it appears that the Democrats and Republicans are in a competition to show which party supports Israel more. The Republicans are attacking the Democrats over Obama's attitude toward Israel, while the Democrats are trying to return fire. On the surface this seems harmless, but actually it is a very negative and worrying development.
During the Republican National Convention Mitt Romney accused Obama of throwing "allies like Israel under the bus." At the Democratic National Convention, Obama said America’s "commitment to Israel’s security must not waver." His aides claim that no other president has done more for Israel. On the other hand, the Democrats omitted from their party platform a clause that supports a united Jerusalem as the eternal capital of Israel.
Party platforms, both in the US and in Israel, are no more than declarations of intent, but the omission of Jerusalem caused an uproar, and Obama instructed the Democratic Party to amend its platform to restore language declaring Jerusalem the Israeli capital.
However, the incident exposed the Democrats' reservations about Israel. Three times Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, the convention chairman, called for a voice vote on the changes and each time the yes and no votes seemed to balance each other out. On the third attempt, Villaraigosa ruled the amendments were approved — triggering boos from many in the audience.
Israel has always enjoyed bi-partisan support in the US. Some have claimed that the Democrats and Republics disagree on every issue except Israel. But lately this situation has changed. Gallup polls indicate that 80% of Republicans view Israel favorably, compared with 65% of Democrats who have a favorable opinion of the Jewish state. The polls also showed that 73% of Republicans and 53% of Democrats support Israel in the conflict with the Palestinians. In addition, 50% of Republicans have a positive opinion of Benjamin Netanyahu, as opposed to only 25% of Democrats who view the Israeli premier favorably. The consensus has unraveled.
The Jewish vote is not as important as people make it out to be, but US presidential candidates believe it is important and operate accordingly. American Jews vote for Democratic candidates because they hold liberal views, and since the days of Franklin Roosevelt they have been part of the coalition of minorities that has been nurtured by the Democratic Party. In the 2008 elections 78% of Jews voted for Obama, but the latest Gallup poll indicated that only 68% of Jews will vote for the incumbent this time around.
The attitude toward Israel is a major factor in Jewish voting patterns, and the Republicans believe they can pick off Jewish American voters in traditional Democratic strongholds due to the fact that Obama is seen as a president who damaged US-Israel relations. This is why they repeatedly bring up the Israel issue. Reducing Jewish support for Obama is important for Romney because it may help him win battleground states such as Florida.
Obama's camp senses that Netanyahu backs Romney. If Obama is reelected, he will have even more freedom to pressure Israel. However, the president will not "take revenge" on the Israeli prime minister, and if he tries, Congress and public opinion will restrain him.
Israel cannot control what the candidates say about each other with regards to Israel, but Jerusalem mustn't take advantage of this dispute between the two presidential candidates and refrain from expressing any kind of support for a particular candidate. Instead, Israel must work to return to the days when Democrats and Republicans were in complete agreement on the Israeli issue.
Prof. Eitan Gilboa is an expert on US-Israel relations and is the director of Bar-Ilan University's School of Communication