The Republican Primaries and the Israel Acid Test

By February 15, 2012

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 165

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Israel has emerged as an important issue in the Republican primaries. In fact, it has become an important issue for a much wider public than just American Jews and evangelical Christians – a public that views the Jewish state as a crucial ally confronting common threats, especially the specter of a nuclear Iran. Consequently, support for Israel in the strategic sphere has become an acid test of presidential credibility on national security. As such, Israel could play an important role in the presidential elections, especially in the event of a major confrontation between Israel and Iran before then.

Israel has been one of the central issues in the US Republican primaries. Candidates have been falling over themselves to establish their own pro-Israel credentials while attacking President Obama for what they view as his lack of such credentials. As Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney bluntly declared: “President Obama has thrown Israel under the bus. He has violated a first principle of American foreign policy, which is to stand firm by our friends.”

The media has largely declared this an attempt to capture the Jewish vote. American Jews constitute about two percent of the US population, though their electoral importance is magnified by their high turnout rate and geographic concentration in states that are particularly important in a presidential election. However, since the 1920s, the majority of American Jews have preferred the Democrats over the Republicans in presidential elections. The maximum swing in the Jewish vote is about 25 percent, and not all voting decisions will be based primarily on Israel. A Democratic candidate does not have to be considered the most pro-Israel candidate to maintain his share of the Jewish vote; he only needs to be perceived as sufficiently pro-Israel.

Jewish dissatisfaction with Obama’s polices towards Israel grew significantly in 2011, but until recently, it was still possible to claim that Obama was considered sufficiently pro-Israel. The level of Jewish support for Obama was falling, but the drop was proportionate to that seen among the general public. However, a Pew poll has now indicated, for the first time, that Obama’s numbers are falling among Jews at a higher rate than the national average. The poll did not explain why this is the case, but it would seem that increased concern over Iran is part of the equation.

Still, with all due to respect to the Jewish vote, it is not the main reason that Republicans are focusing on Israel. To win the Republican nomination, a candidate must capture the party base, and in the last decade Israel has become of central importance to that base. A poll conducted by Professor Steven M. Cohen prior to the 2008 presidential election indicated that for just over a quarter of non-Jewish Americans – the majority of them Republicans – Israel is an important factor in determining their vote. The usual assumption is that these are conservative, evangelical Christians who make up the largest chunk of the Republican base. Indeed, the rhetoric of candidates like Rick Santorum resonates with this demographic.

Yet, while religion is significant, it is not the most important factor in determining Republican support for Israel. Until 9/11, Republicans sympathized with Israel over Palestinians by only slightly higher margins than Democrats. However, in the last decade the margin between the parties has doubled, with Republican sympathy for Israel surging ahead by 25 percent and the Democrats remaining more or less unchanging. The number of evangelicals has not increased by a quarter over the last decade, so the Republican surge is not a matter of theology, but national security – American national security.

Polling by Public Opinion Strategies from 2010 indicates that the top reason that Republicans support Israel is because they perceive it as America’s most important ally in the Middle East. The belief that God gave the land to the Jewish people was the fourth most popular reason, though the data shows this fell way behind shared democratic values and partnership in the war against terror.

At the same time polling by Pew and Gallup over the last few years demonstrates that for Americans in general, the most critical perceived threats to the US are terrorism and the military power of Iran. (The threat posed by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is perceived to have diminished). Indeed, Iran is considered America’s greatest enemy, followed by North Korea and China. These countries also make up three of the top four countries where developments are considered ‘vitally important’ to American interests.

The fourth country on that list is Israel – considered by Americans as their most important front line ally. It’s not simply that they are sympathetic to Israel’s security concerns; it’s that they view much of Israel’s security concerns as their own. Thus, supporting Israel and keeping it strong is important for the US itself. This is not just the Republican position, either. A majority of Democrats also view Israel as a crucial ally. What this means is that support for Israel in the strategic sphere (though not necessarily on all aspects of the peace process) is an acid test of presidential credibility on national security. How a president handles Israel will have implications for his standing as commander-in-chief.

The conventional wisdom is that the economy, not national security, will be key issue in the election. However, some forecast an upturn in the economy before November, which may cause the Republicans to focus attention on other issues. Republicans might be hesitant to take up foreign policy since Obama’s standing on this issue is reasonably good. Yet, national security may force itself up the political agenda because of unfolding events in the Middle East. Some key figures in the Israeli government believe that Israel should strike Iran and that the window for action may close before November. In other words, Israel and Iran may become an election issue whether Obama or the Republicans like it or not.

On these issues, Obama can point to the fact that he has increased strategic cooperation between Israel and the US during his term. He can also highlight the lead that his administration has taken it ratcheting up sanctions against Iran. But the question is: If there is a serious crisis, will this be regarded by the American public as enough? While Americans today are more inclined to cut back overseas commitments than at any time since Vietnam, this does not mean that they are prepared to countenance a nuclear Iran. Recent polling conducted by The Hill and The Wall Street Journal indicates that a clear majority of Americans would approve using force against Iran if it were clear that Iran was close to developing a nuclear weapon.

In other words, the Iranian nuclear program is not only a major strategic issue in the Middle East; it may also turn out to be a major political issue in the American presidential election. For American Jews, it is already an issue, and President Obama appears to be paying a price.

BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family

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Prof. Jonathan Rynhold
Prof. Jonathan Rynhold

Dr. Jonathan Rynhold, a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, is a senior lecturer of political studies at Bar-Ilan University, and director of its Argov Center for the Study of Israel and the Jewish People. Email: [email protected]