Must Be The Money

What's This Jerusalem Flap All About?

09.06.12 8:30 PM ET

Since we've spent more than a full day now discussing a line in a policy platform that, as history shows, bears no relationship to reality, perhaps it's worth discussing what it's all about. What made the Democratic Party—nay, the President of the United States take the unusual step of calling a voice vote to reinstate language in his party platform that would declare Jerusalem the capital of Israel? Why, just as the presidential election is coming into full swing, is this a day-plus long political drama anyway?

On his Atlantic blog, Jeffrey Goldberg wrote that the "Jerusalem imbroglio"—an apt moniker—was about moving the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. But that's merely another move that would effectuate the same shift as actually instituting as national policy either party's repeated platform pledges to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital. That recognition is, as Goldberg hinted in a tweet, all about a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Palestinians want the Eastern part of Jerusalem for their future capital, and U.S. recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the city could well alter the balance of power in (currently moribund) negotiations towards that end.

But Israelis and Palestinians don't vote in U.S. elections, whether they're hankering for peace or not. However, American Jews do. They vote in high percentages but not, as Emily Hauser noted in these pages, solely—or even primarily—on Israel issues. For many, though, the Mideast is important. These must have been the voters whom Goldberg had his eye on when he said the Jerusalem flap was about the "exploitation of neurosis" through Republican fearmongering.

But American Jews who fearmonger or are susceptible to this fearmongering are few and far between. The Economist's Democracy in America blog, before the Jerusalem flap exploded, noted that Jews "comprise a whopping 2 percent of the American electorate" and only double that in the key swing state of Florida. Not much to win there among a largely Democratic and staunchly liberal demographic. Democracy in America thinks the Republicans' Israel attacks are all about evangelical voters. But if Mitt Romney's focus on mostly liberal American Jews would be folly, one must ask why Barack Obama rushed in to placate a constituency of (at least) tens of millions that forms the base of the other party. The answer is that he didn't.

Instead, the Republican attacks are aimed at a different party base—its donor base—and Democratic defensiveness is aimed at shoring up its own. Discussed with vitriol or hyperbole, this dynamic might smack of anti-Semitic stereotypes about Jewish money or control, but not addressing it risks leaving a very real political phenomenon unexamined. James Besser, no anti-Semite and in fact an elder statesman of the Jewish press corps, wrote on it forthrightly last month: "Jewish votes—a drop in the huge electoral bucket—are much less important than Israel-focused campaign cash." He asked, "So why are Jewish Republicans spending millions portraying Obama as a threat to the Jewish state?"

The reason is money. While Jewish voting isn’t very Israel-focused, Jewish campaign giving is—and especially the mega-giving that is playing a bigger role than ever in Election 2012. Tarring Obama as anti-Israel, while not influencing many Jewish votes, galvanizes the growing base of wealthy pro-Israel givers and provides a platform for their generally hard-line views, one more front in the internal Jewish debate over Israel’s future.

Among those givers? Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire casino magnate who pledged $100 million or more to unseat Obama. While he certainly has business interests too, Adelson said in 2010, about a right-wing Israeli newspaper he founded, "All we care about is being good Zionists, being good citizens of Israel." The Democrats have their own major donors to worry about as well. Israeli-American Haim Saban remains a robust donor to broader Democratic causes even though he didn't bundle donations for Obama in 2008 and doesn't plan on it this year. And he's been critical of the president on Israel, writing a New York Times op-ed this week that closed by noting Obama should have "done more to allay Israel’s worries." Then there's the billionaire hedge fund honcho Daniel Loeb, an Obama supporter in 2008, who's spent this cycle bankrolling a neoconservative anti-Obama PAC focused on Israel and hosted a Romney fundraiser. (Loeb also has anti-business-regulation interests.)

A top Obama surrogate to the Jewish community, Democratic National Committee chief Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, had embarrassing slip-up after embarassing slip-up trying to outflank Republicans on Israel issues. She said this week that "there has never been and will never be daylight between the two parties" on Israel, an echo of the common refrain that Israel must not be politicized. But the "Jerusalem imbroglio," where Wasserman-Schultz got her way in the end, demonstrates it already is.