Is Israel Mitt Romney’s New Swing State?

Romney comes to Jerusalem at a time when Democrats’ grip on Jewish voters may be in peril. By Eli Lake.

LM Otero / AP Photo

On the eve of Mitt Romney’s trip to Israel, America’s Jewish vote may be in play in ways that it has not been in the past. Traditionally, most Jewish Americans have voted for Democrats. In 2008, President Obama got between 74 and 78 percent of the Jewish vote. But 2012 might be different.

“It would be difficult for Republicans to get 35 percent of the Jewish vote, but it’s not impossible,” said Mik Moore, the treasurer of the Jewish Council for Education and Research, the super PAC that produced and financed the Web video in which comedienne Sarah Silverman offers to allow billionaire casino-executive Sheldon Adelson an evening of lesbian-style sex known as “scissoring” if he pulls his support for Romney.

Adelson has promised to spend $100 million of his own fortune to defeat Obama. He will be with Romney in Israel and will help host a fundraiser for the candidate while he’s there.

Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said he thought more Jewish votes were in play this year. “I think there is probably 15 to 20 percent of the Jewish community that is realistically undecided and conflicted at this point and this is what we are all fighting for,” he said. A Gallup poll released Friday found Jewish registered voters favored Obama over Romney by 68 percent to 25 percent.

Mitt Romney will arrive in Israel on Saturday afternoon to make a bid for both undecided Jewish voters but also the evangelical Christians, who are a key Republican constituency and are strong supporters of Israel.

While in Israel, Romney will meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as well as key members of his national-security cabinet on Sunday. He will also meet with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who is seen by Republicans and Democrats as a reformer, but not with the Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority. Romney on Sunday evening will attend a dinner at Netanyahu’s home to mark the breaking of the Jewish fast of Tisha B’av, a holiday that commemorates the destruction of the first and second temples of the biblical Israelites.

Netanyahu is scheduled on Sunday also to deliver a speech on the U.S.-Israel relationship. Briefing reporters on a conference call Friday, Dan Senor, a senior adviser on the campaign, said the speech will highlight how “the challenges and threats to Israel are challenges and threats to America. And the opportunities awaiting Israel are opportunities awaiting America.”

The symbolism of the trip is important for Romney. To start, President Obama has not visited the Jewish state since coming into office despite multiple trips to the region, including Israel’s neighbor, Egypt, and Israel’s former ally, Turkey. But the trip is also important as a contrast between Obama’s relationship with Netanyahu and Romney’s relationship with Netanyahu.

Romney has known the Israeli leader since 1976, when both were corporate advisers for the Boston Consulting Group. Netanyahu’s chief of staff, Ron Dermer, is a protégé of Republican pollster Frank Luntz.

Obama has had a notoriously chilly relationship with Netanyahu. During a visit to Washington in May 2011, Netanyahu famously lectured Obama during a photo opportunity on how Israel could not withdraw to its borders before the 1967 war. A year before that, Obama was furious after an Israeli housing authority announced new settlement construction in an Arab neighborhood of East Jerusalem during a visit from Vice President Biden. More recently, Obama spokespeople have declined to acknowledge Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in press conferences. Since the 1990s, Democratic and Republican presidential candidates have promised to move the U.S. embassy from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. In office however, President Clinton, President Bush, and now President Obama have stuck by a policy that considers the status of Jerusalem to be something that must be negotiated in peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

These snubs and disagreements will be amplified in the 2012 election cycle because of a tide of unregulated and undisclosed money following the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which overturned independent expenditure limits in U.S. campaign-finance laws.

Those independent expenditures include a new $6.5 million campaign from the Republican Jewish Coalition targeting Jewish voters. Adelson is one of the financial backers of the campaign.

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A new group called the Emergency Committee for Israel has launched a series of ads in Jewish newspapers this week attacking Obama’s record on Israel, claiming that he has placed undue pressure on the Jewish state. A new Web and television ad from the group contrasts Obama’s 2008 speech at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee,l where he said he recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, with recent statements from White House spokesman Jay Carney declining to answer the question of where the administration believes Israel’s capital is.

“I don’t want to see Obama get 78 percent of the Jewish vote again and the RJC and the Emergency Committee are important parts of the conversation and they hold the president accountable for what has been a bad record on Israel,” said Mark Isakowitz, a member of the Romney finance committee and a board member of the Republican Jewish Coalition.

Alan Solow, a national co-chairman of the Obama-Biden reelection campaign, said he is expecting to be hit hard with these kinds of independent expenditures.

“We are anticipating that they will spend a lot of money to try to mischaracterize the president’s record on Israel,” Solow said. “The reason they have to spend so much money is that they don’t have a case. Rather than stick to the facts and look at what the president has accomplished, they will spend a lot of money to convince people of an alternative reality and we believe they will fail.”

The Obama campaign will highlight a series of moves the president has taken to strengthen support for Israel’s defenses, such as a special aid package to help finance the development of Iron Dome, a missile-defense system designed to shoot down portable short-range rockets. Under Obama, U.S. diplomats have helped defeat the Palestinian campaign for recognition by the U.N. On Friday, Obama signed into law the U.S.-Israel Enhanced Cooperation Act, a bill that extends loan guarantees for Israel and authorizes more spending on Israeli defense.

Solow said the Obama campaign is just getting started to make this case to Jewish voters in swing states and to donors. At the same time, he acknowledged that Obama’s initial efforts at making peace between Israel and the Palestinians have not been successful.

“We have been trying to solve this problem since 1948—no president has been 100 percent successful in achieving peace between Israel and its neighbors,” he said. “I give President Obama lots of credit in trying to untie this knot. He tried some things that didn’t work, and in response to things that didn’t work, he made adjustments to his policy.”

For now however, Obama will be making this case without the benefit of a major new lobby group, J Street, whose executive director in 2009 said it would be Obama’s “blocking back” in Congress and supported Obama’s more confrontational approach with Netanyahu in 2009 and 2010. “We have many supporters from across the Jewish spectrum including some who are affiliated with J Street,” Solow said. “J Street as an organization does not play a role in the campaign.” Jessica Rosenblum, J Street’s director of communications, confirmed that her organization was not playing a role in the reelection campaign. “Our work is focused on advocating for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Our political action committee focuses on House and Senate races.”