Trump at AIPAC: Is the pro-Israel lobby going astray?


I watched Donald Trump speak to AIPAC from my office, 3,000 miles away from Washington, D.C., staring at C-SPAN on my laptop while eating hummus.

So why was it that afterward, I still felt I needed a shower?

I cringe as I write this, but it wasn’t Donald who made me feel kind of yucky. It was AIPAC.

I cringe, because a big part of me has the utmost respect for the important work of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. I am grateful such a lobbying group exists. Although you wouldn’t know it from watching the coverage of AIPAC’s annual convention, Jews are actually a minority in the world, even in America.

And somehow, to a degree almost as miraculous as Israel’s own creation, a small group of American Jews built an organization that can amplify the pro-Israel cause within the halls of power. Many of us take their work for granted, and even more of us pick at every misstep such a large lobbying group is bound to make.

Given AIPAC’s current size and influence, it is easy to forget the forces that were arrayed against Israel when AIPAC came into existence in 1951: far, far more powerful oil and gas interests with ties to the Arab world, a subtly anti-Semitic Harry Truman administration and State Department, knee-jerk anti-Western reactionaries, arms dealers eager to cash in on the Middle East conflict, numerous nations actively seeking to destroy Israel. Would Israel have survived without the U.S. support garnered through AIPAC’s influence? Probably. Would it have thrived? Unlikely.

And it’s not as if today’s world makes AIPAC any less necessary. Israel is powerful, but it’s hardly a superpower. Big Oil, with its deep ties to OPEC, spends more on lobbying than any other group. I can’t help but wonder if the progressives who constantly slam AIPAC feel so much better letting Saudi and Gulf State emirs have their way on Capitol Hill. In the real world, where powerful financial, political and ideological forces are arrayed against Israel and where politicians are not known for their unwavering moral stands, it’s a good thing AIPAC is good at what it does.

And that’s exactly why Monday’s speeches left me feeling unsettled, if not unclean. Precisely because AIPAC’s mission is so important, I worry that it is going astray.

The world is not privy to the serious policy work, sincere bipartisan outreach and thoughtful analysis that make up so much of AIPAC’s behind-the-scenes success.

What the world saw was one presidential candidate after another throwing red meat to the crowd.

The world heard the crowd cheer when Republican front-runner Donald Trump derided President Barack Obama and Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton. The world heard the crowd applaud Sen. Ted Cruz’s empty promise to “rip this catastrophic Iran deal to shreds.” The world watched as AIPAC’s carefully built reputation for seriousness and bipartisanship was drowned by blind ovations.

You could make the case that forcing one candidate after another to pander to the crowd and make empty promises on the record was, in its way, a show of power, a signal to Israel’s opponents that Washington belongs to AIPAC.

But if that’s the strategy, it’s time to rethink the strategy.

Inside the Verizon Center, there must have been a feeling of power and unity. Outside the Verizon Center, it read differently.

Bernie Sanders, whose candidacy has energized and mobilized the very college students whom AIPAC and other pro-Israel groups say they are most worried about, wasn’t allowed to speak at all. AIPAC said its rules prohibited candidates from making video addresses, though four years ago, the same rules allowed Republicans Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich to do just that. College students have a word for that: BS.

Though Clinton received enthusiastic applause, her pre-dawn (by Pacific Daylight Time) speech was a distant memory by the time Trump stepped to the podium. The pro-Israel crowd spent prime time cheering the most hard-line and partisan pronouncements.

As I wrote last week, the fact that AIPAC gave Trump a platform without clearly condemning his attacks against Muslims and Mexicans, and his calls to violence only weakened the organization’s own standing among the minorities, moderates and liberals whose support Israel will certainly need in the future. Only Clinton and GOP candidate John Kasich alluded to the low road Trump has taken. Before the speech, AIPAC remained mum.

Its defenders argued that AIPAC is solely a pro-Israel advocacy group, and it shouldn’t be expected to weigh in on anything that doesn’t have to do with defending Israel.

But as I watched Trump speak to frequent ovations, I couldn’t help but wonder if there weren’t more American Jews like me, who don’t believe you have to check in your Jewish ethics to support a Jewish state.

On Tuesday, AIPAC leaders apparently woke up to the fact that Trump had put his foot in their mouths.  The organization's president, Lillian Pinkus, issued a statement  condemning Trump’s anti-Obama remarks and the (thousands of) audience members who applauded them.

“We are disappointed that so many people applauded a sentiment that we neither agree with or condone,” Pinkus wrote.

Of course by then, the cameras were off. And the damage was done.


Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @foodaism.

Azerbaijan: Israel’s secret Muslim friend


This article first appeared on The Media Line.

Azerbaijan went to the polls earlier in the week in an event that was shunned by both the country’s main opposition parties and even by international election monitors. One exception was a group of several Israeli politicians who flew into the oil rich nation to observe the proceedings. Although this is unlikely to improve the poll’s credibility it does demonstrate the intimacy of the relationship between the Jewish state and its closest Muslim ally, experts said.

Location explains Azerbaijan’s standing in the world. Situated on the oil rich Caspian Sea, the state is wooed by Western governments seeking an alternative to Russia as a source of energy imports. Israel is one such customer and in return sells large quantities of sophisticated weaponry to Azerbaijan, partly in exchange for oil.

Much of the oil Israel purchases – about 40% — travels through the Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline, Gallia Lindenstrauss, a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, told The Media Line. The BTC runs overland from Baku, the country’s capital on the Caspian Sea, through Georgia, and ends in Turkey. “Historically speaking, Israel put a lot of importance on energy security,” Lindenstrauss said. This caused Israel to pursue a close relationship with the Caucasus state, and led to it recognizing Azerbaijan shortly after it declared independence in 1991.

Equally important to Israel is Azerbaijan’s southern border with Iran, a country with no love lost for Baku, despite both countries’ populations being predominantly Shi’ite Muslim. This makes Israel and Azerbaijan natural allies since “both countries see Iran as an existential threat,” Lindenstrauss observed.

There are ample reasons for Azerbaijan to welcome its alliance with the Jewish state: some with a view toward Iran and others due to Armenia, according to Alexander Murinson, an independent researcher with the Begin-Sadat Center and author of Turkey's Entente with Israel and Azerbaijan. Armenia and Azerbaijan became embroiled in an ethnic conflict following the collapse of the Soviet Union, a dispute which continues to dominate their interactions. “Joint containment of Iran, access to high-tech Israeli military, [and the] blocking of the Armenian diaspora in the United States by the Jewish lobby,” are incentives for Azerbaijan to court Israel, Murinson suggested.

The Azerbaijan-Israel association suits both parties well. The selling of sophisticated weapons to Azerbaijan is “another attempt at psychological pressure on Iran” by the Jewish state, the author explained. Drone and air defense technologies make up the bulk of such exchanges.

But the cooperation goes further than this. Azerbaijan’s location makes it a natural back door into Iran. There are reports suggesting that all of Israel’s covert espionage activities conducted against Iran were based in Azerbaijan, including the assassinations of the nuclear scientist Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, Murinson said.

The Iranian foreign ministry has accused Azerbaijan of collaborating with the Israeli foreign intelligence agency, the Mossad, and of acting as a safe house for its operations. Azerbaijan’s proximity to Iran could also enable it to function as an airfield or refueling stop for Israeli jets conducting raids against targets in Iran.

Turkey adds another piece to this complex arrangement. Previously, a triangle alliance was created between it, Azerbaijan and Israel. But following a long term cooling of relations between Ankara and Israel due in large part to the Mavi Marmara incident in 2010, Azerbaijan came under pressure to distance itself from Israel. Nine Turkish activists were killed on the ship when Israeli commandos stormed the ship as it was attempting to circumvent the Israeli blockade and sail to the Gaza Strip.

Although the cultural connection between Azerbaijan and its “big brother” Turkey is extremely close, expediency and regional ambition caused the smaller state to stick to its alliance with Israel, Murinson argued.

In recent years, the under the radar relationship appeared problematic for the United States, too, as Washington was concerned that Israel would use Azerbaijani airfields to strike at Iran, Lindenstrauss said. This would have disrupted attempts to negotiate the nuclear agreement between Iran and Western states that was recently signed, and which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been consistently opposed to.

With an ally able to both provide oil and pressure Iran, Israel doesn’t want to look too closely at the domestic politics of Azirbaijan. This, Lindenstrauss suggested, is a common trend in Israeli foreign affairs where realpolitik is central.

The elections which took place recently, and which comfortably returned incumbent Ilham Heydar Aliyev to power, were boycotted by observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Monitors for the poll had not been guaranteed sufficient access to ensure transparency, the OSCE said. Most members of the opposition boycotted the election as well.

“It’s hard to talk about free and fair elections in a country where freedom of expression and assembly are restricted, and journalists who should be reporting on elections, and NGO activists who should be monitoring them are in jail,” Giorgi Gogia, Human Rights Watch’s researcher for Azerbaijan, told The Media Line.

However there are limits to how far and to how visibly the relationship will go. Although an Israeli embassy exists in Baku, Azerbaijan has never deemed to open a diplomatic headquarters in Tel Aviv. The Azerbaijani government always feared that doing so would make fellow Muslim states less likely to support it in its dispute with Christian Armenia, Lindenstrauss explained.

As for the future of the Israel-Azerbaijan relationship, it is likely to continue unless Israel breaks its long kept silence on the Armenian Genocide, Zeev Levin, a historian with the central Asian and Caucasus research unit at the Hebrew University, told The Media Line. Such a change in stance might drive Azerbaijan away from Israel and into the arms of Ankara.

Beyond the toxic rhetoric: Obama, Bibi and prospects for peace


President Barack Obama remains furious at Benjamin Netanyahu. He and many European leaders were counting on Israelis to get rid of an intractable “hawk” and replace him with Yitzak (Bougie) Herzog, the more flexible “dove.” With Bibi out of the way, the path would have been cleared for a quick final deal with Iran (including immediate removal of sanctions) and hasten a two-state solution in the Holy Land, before President Obama’s second term ended.

But how realistic was that? Let’s say that Bougie had won 30 seats en route to setting up a center-left coalition, Prime Minister Herzog would have to strive mightily to thwart Tehran going nuclear. Ayatollah Khamenei and his lackeys would still be plotting the Jewish State's annihilation. Israel's Prime Minister would also be challenged by a new strategic threat from Iran and its Hezbollah terrorist allies, who are busily building a new missile-laden front to threaten the Galilee and Israel's northern panhandle from Syrian territory–opposite the Golan Heights. To date, these provocative moves by Tehran haven’t raised any protest from either the U.S. or the European Union.

Without doubt, a Left-led coalition is much more strongly committed to a Two-State solution than the Netanyahu-led Likud ever was; though it is hard to see how a deal could have been reached by Herzog during the next two years. Hamas’ continued terrorism and genocidal hate, and the embrace by leaders of the corrupt-riven Palestinian Authority of terrorist murderers of Jews, leave many Israelis on the Left doubtful that President Mahmoud Abbas has either the power or desire to negotiate a final settlement. His game plan remains relying on the U.N., the E.U., and (perhaps) the U.S. to force Israel into a deal that heavily favors maximal Palestinian aspirations. Israelis across the political spectrum still want a peace deal with their Arab neighbors, but even a Herzog-led coalition still needs a Palestinian partner prepared to tell his constituents in Arabic that their Jewish neighbors are there to stay and that they too have rights to be in the Holy Land. Tragically, there is no Palestinian Anwar Sadat on the horizon.

For now, Obama seems intent on pummeling and punishing Prime Minister Netanyahu. However, the suggestion of a game-changing U.S. support of an U.N. Security resolution that would effectively force a shotgun marriage between Jerusalem and Ramallah is a terrible idea. It would only backfire, weakening Israel's left and further emboldening Hamas and Hezbollah to ramp up terror attacks against a Jewish State that may no longer have the U.S. in its corner.

In fact, the road to real progress towards peace starts in the Oval Office through Ramallah. Here are five suggestions for the next Obama-Abbas call:

1. No more International Criminal Court shenanigans. Seeking indictment of your negotiating partners for crimes against humanity is a deal-killer.

2. No more unilateral moves to gain U.N.-recognized statehood without negotiating with the Israelis.

3. Including Hamas that refuses to drop its genocidal anti-Israel agenda – in a Palestinian government is untenable. PA must take back control of Gaza. If the PA can’t even enter, let alone control, the largest Palestinian communities, how can Israel expect that the PA can deliver on any commitment.

4. No more anti-Semitic attacks and incitement by Palestinian media, religious and other elite. Stop denying the Jewish people's link to its ancestral homeland. Such hatred incenses Israelis and contributes to the explosion of anti-Semitism across Europe and on North American university campuses.

5. The US and European donors are ready to invest billions more in peace. For that to happen, transparency must reign–insuring that help actually reaches Palestinians who need it. The brutal truth is that if elections were held on the West Bank right now, Hamas would win in a landslide, because of one central issue: corruption.

And Bibi? He walked back his election campaign statement that there will be no Palestinian state under his watch. But he knows that if and when a viable partner emerges from the Palestinian camp, any elected Israeli Prime Minister will have to rush to the negotiating table.

Prime Netanyahu must also do everything in his power to de-personalize disagreements with President Obama. But no one should expect Netanyahu to step back from his stance on Iran. He (and every Jew) is right to take the Mullahocracy's existential threats at face value.

I was present at our Nation's Capitol for Bibi Netanyahu's speech on Iran. Love him or hate him, everyone there, and all Israelis watching at home, saw a true world leader in action. In the end, his respectful and masterful speech reminded everyone, that he has earned his place on the international stage, no matter how discomfiting his message is to some.

If the Obama Administration really wants to reach Israelis, denouncing the democratic results of the Israeli electorate, is not the way to go. What they want to hear from Washington is a coherent plan for fighting terrorism in their neighborhood and the details of a deal with Iran that, to paraphrase Netanyahu, Israelis and Iran's Arab neighbors, can “literally” live with.

Hopefully, the mushrooming dangers in the region will help both President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu recalibrate their rhetoric and refocus on the enormous challenges at hand.


Rabbi Abraham Cooper is Associate Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Netanyahu tells Israel’s Arabs he ‘regrets’ election-day rallying call


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Monday he regretted offending Israel's Arabs during a rallying call on election day last week that his critics had denounced as racist.

In a video clip posted on his Facebook page, Netanyahu told representatives of Israel's Arab community: “I know that the things I said a few days ago offended Israel's Arabs. I had no intention for this to happen, I regret this.”

Fearing his voters would stay home, Netanyahu, who won a surprise election victory last Tuesday and is set to head a new government, accused left-wing organizations of bussing Arab-Israelis to the polls “in droves” to vote against him.

“The rule of the right is in danger,” he said at the time.

Speaking to the group of Israeli Arabs at his official residence in Jerusalem on Monday, Netanyahu said: “I consider myself as prime minister of each one of you, of all Israel's citizens, regardless of religion, race or gender.”

While he got a warm reception from those present, his comments were rejected by Ayman Odeh, leader of the Joint Arab List, which secured 13 seats at last week's election to become the third largest force in parliament.

“We do not accept this apology. It was to a group of elders and not to the elected leadership of Israel's Arabs … I want to see actions, how is he going to manifest this apology? … will he advance equality?” Odeh told Israel's Channel 10.

Israeli Arabs make up around 20 percent of the country's eight-million-strong population.

They are descendants of residents who stayed put during the 1948 war of Israel's founding, in which hundreds of thousands of fellow Palestinians fled or were forced to leave their homes, ending up in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria as well as in the occupied West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem.

Israeli election coverage with Donniel Hartman and Yossi Klein Halevi


Read about the election results here:
Winners, losers and Israel’s next coalition

Live Blog 2015 Israeli Elections Results Live Stream

We encourage you to post advance questions for Donniel and Yossi at Hartman@jewishjournal.com or by visiting hartman.org.il.

During the program, send direct messages to the Hartman Institute Twitter account (@hartman_inst) or visit the Institute Facebook page.


Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman is President of the Shalom Hartman Institute, and the Director of the Institute's iEngage Project. He has a Ph.D. in Jewish philosophy from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, a Master of Arts in political philosophy from New York University, a Master of Arts in religion from Temple University, and Rabbinic ordination from the Shalom Hartman Institute.

His new book, Putting God Second: How to Save Religion from Itself, is scheduled for publication by Beacon Press in February 2016. He is currently working on his next book, which is entitled, Who Are The Jews: Healing A Divided People.

Yossi Klein Halevi is a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, a member of the Institute's iEngage Project, co-director of the Institute's Muslim Leadership Initiative, and a prizewinning author. His most recent book, Like Dreamers: The Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation, won the Jewish Book Council's Everett Family Foundation Jewish Book of the Year Award for 2013.

Yossi is a frequent contributor to the op-ed pages of leading North American newspapers. He is active in reconciliation efforts between Muslims and Jews and serves as Chairman of Open House, an Arab-Jewish coexistence center in the town of Ramle, near Tel Aviv.

Israel’s election: It’s the economy, stupid


Ambassador Michael Oren and professor Manuel Trajtenberg, both immigrants who have served as Benjamin Netanyahu’s most respected — and visible — public servants, have joined campaigns against the Likud. Their voices reflect 11th-hour polling suggesting the Israeli electorate is breaking from the prime minister’s party largely over the economy.

“It is clear that we should reverse course,” Trajtenberg said.

The Tel Aviv University economist emigrated from Argentina when he was 16 and earned his doctorate in economics at Harvard. Joining the Zionist Union’s electoral slate represents the first foray into partisan politics for the 65-year-old academic.

“I have a very strong feeling that the country is stuck in so many ways, both on the social-economic side but clearly on the political-diplomatic aspect as well. So, I feel if I can do anything to bring about change, I should do it,” Trajtenberg told the Jewish Journal.

“The government should again take responsibility for social services,” said Trajtenberg, who was named by Netanyahu to head a panel charged with drafting economic policy recommendations after the 2011 social justice protests.

The prime minister shelved most of the findings in the report.

“The Netanyahu era has been characterized by continuous decrease in government involvement in the provision of services. The liberalizing economic philosophy, which was good in the 1990s, has gone too far, and what we are seeing is a reduction in resources for education and health and increasing poverty,” Trajtenberg said.

Over the past few months, Trajtenberg, the Zionist Union’s candidate for finance minister, has worked with other party leaders including Yitzhak Herzog, social activist Stav Shaffir and tech investor Erel Margalit to draft a detailed economic program that shifts resources with the aim of “inclusive growth”.

“The reality is that “start-up nation” is happening only in high tech, and most of the economy is not involved — so what we need to do is bring innovation to other sectors in the economy, including services,” explained Trajtenberg.

Oren, who was appointed by Netanyahu to serve as Israel’s ambassador to Washington in 2009, is No. 4 on the Kulanu list.  The new party is focused almost exclusively on economic egalitarianism, with more of a focus on consumer rights and regulating prices, without some of the socialist underpinnings of the Zionist Camp program.

“When I was ambassador in Washington, I met hundreds of young Israelis who said they wanted to go home and do reserve duty,” recalled Oren at a March 12 candidates’ forum organized by the Tel Aviv International Salon.

“They told me they couldn’t come back to Israel because they didn’t see how they would make a decent living there or be able to own a home. It tore my heart out.”

Oren served as a lone soldier in the Israel Defense Forces after moving to Israel in 1979.

“When I listen to the candidates here from the Likud and Yesh Atid saying how great a job they’ve done in office, I have to ask how is it possible that Israel’s rank in any international economic criteria is in the sewer,” Oren said. 

He pointed to child poverty rates of 20 percent and the world’s second-most-expensive food costs, exceeded only by Australia’s, as signs of a policy failure.

Polls show Kulanu likely to win eight seats in the next Knesset. Its leader, Moshe Kahlon, the son of Libyan immigrants to Israel, is best known from his stint as Netanyahu’s communications minister, when he reduced mobile phone rates.

“The prime minister gave a rather heralded speech in Congress about a truly existential threat posed by an Iranian nuclear weapon, but the polls show overwhelmingly that we in Israel see far greater existential threats in the economic and social dangers facing this country,” Oren said.

According to February polls conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University, 40 percent of Israelis (41 percent of Jewish Israelis and 36 percent of Arab Israelis) say socioeconomic issues will determine which party they will vote for. Thirty-two percent of Israelis (33 percent of Jewish Israelis and 29 percent of Arab Israelis) will vote based on a party’s foreign policy/security stance, and 17 percent of Israelis (18 percent of Jewish Israelis and 12 percent of Arab Israelis) will vote based on both issues to the same extent.

While Kahlon’s supporters tend to belong to the center-right when it comes to the boundaries and timetable for Palestinian statehood, they are largely focused on capturing the finance ministry, with which they will demand either of the two large parties selected by President Reuven Rivlin to form a governing coalition.

“If we become the king-makers, we are going to make sure that we have the finance ministry,” said Joseph Brown, 34, an oleh (a person who makes aliyah) from Indianapolis who runs the informal Facebook Page for Kulanu’s English-speaking supporters.

“Should Zionist Camp win, Kulanu will moderate their more socialistic leanings and make sure they don’t turn the clock back to 1986. If Bibi wins, we are going to make sure that we get to break up the monopolies and continue to push for consumer rights. It’s a win-win either way,” Brown said.

Naor Narkis, a veteran of the 2011 Rothschild Street protests and the figure behind last summer’s controversial “Aliyah to Berlin” campaign, which was launched over the continued housing affordability crisis, isn’t saying who he is voting for, but makes it clear that the likelihood that Kulanu’s ability to align with Netanyahu is a concern.

“My fear is that Kahlon might be a good minister who will try to do good things for the public, but from where I stand, no real change is possible; under Netanyahu, no change is possible,” the 25-year-old activist said.

“I met Trajtenberg after Netanyahu appointed him to write the report on what changes are needed. After reading it, I felt it was a step in the right direction, if not exactly what the people who protested wanted. Netanyahu did nothing with those results, but I do think he is a good candidate who will do good things for Israel if Herzog gets to form the next government.”

Time to enter the Iranian bazaar on the nuclear issue


Israeli markets cheer centrists’ election gains


Israeli markets rose on Wednesday on investor hopes that the outcome of the previous day's election means Benjamin Netanyahu will remain prime minister and ultra-Orthodox parties have no role in government.

The blue-chip Tel Aviv 25 index rose 1 percent to 1,204.65 points, near last week's year-high of 1,225.76, while the broader TA-100 index closed 0.9 percent higher.

Government bond prices gained as much as 0.5 percent and the shekel appreciated 0.4 percent to 3.722 per dollar from Monday's fixing of 3.738, near a 10-month peak.

“We will enjoy this for a few days,” said Zach Herzog, head of foreign sales at the Psagot brokerage. “The downside will be if the coalition talks drag on or if we see Labour or (ultra-Orthodox) Shas in serious talks to get involved.

“This can be a launching pad for a positive 2013,” he added.

Herzog said a coalition government more centrist than Netanyahu's current right-wing and religious administration would be better placed to impose needed budget cuts.

Ultra-Orthodox parties have traditionally demanded budget-draining state subsidies for their institutions in return for joining coalitions in Israel, where no one party has ever won a parliamentary majority on its own.

Results of Tuesday's parliamentary vote showed Netanyahu's right-wing Likud-Beitenu group emerging on top with 31 of parliament's 120 seats, albeit dropping sharply from the current 42 after voters shifted support to centrists focusing on Israelis' rising cost of living.

Yesh Atid, a new centrist party that has pledged to ease the burden of Israel's middle class, took 19 seats, one more than the number won by ultra-Orthodox parties.

If Yesh Atid's leader, former TV news anchor Yair Lapid, opts to join a Netanyahu coalition, along with the far-right Jewish Home party, the prime minister would likely control 61 seats, giving him a narrow parliamentary majority.

Netanyahu, however, has said he hopes to form as broad a government as possible, signaling the way was open for ultra-Orthodox factions to participate.

BUDGET DEFICIT

Netanyahu's reputations as a skilled economic operator was harmed just before the election when data showed Israel posted a budget deficit of 4.2 percent of gross domestic product in 2012 – more than double its initial target.

To meet a target of 3 percent in 2013, the government – which overspent heavily the past two years to keep its previous coalition partners happy – will have to find some 15 billion shekels ($4 billion) of cuts, as well as raising taxes.

Credit agency Fitch forecast the deficit reaching 3.8 percent of GDP this year, saying the stable outlook on its 'A' rating risked being downgraded in the event of “serious fiscal slippage”.

But a move towards the government's 60 percent debt-to-GDP target could result in positive ratings action, its sovereign ratings director Paul Gamble said in a report on Wednesday.

He also said the coalition talks would focus on budgetary issues and likely be time-consuming.

Psagot's Herzog said the market was also pleased that the centre-left Labour Party, whose leader, Shelly Yachimovich, has railed against capitalism during the election campaign, received just 15 seats, a poor than expected showing.

“In addition to the positive result that Netanyahu was re-elected as prime minister, you have a significant blow to the prestige to the anti-business candidate,” Herzog said.

A currency dealer at a large Israeli bank said most of Wednesday's dollar selling came from local rather than offshore customers. He said there was still a way for the dollar to fall before its next support level at 3.7050 shekels.

According to financial information services firm Markit, Israeli five-year credit default swaps – which insure against debt default – edged up 125 basis points from 123 on Monday. They had been at 156 basis points in November when military tensions escalated in the Gaza Strip.

Additional reporting by Tova Cohen and Carolyn Cohn; Editing by Jeffrey Heller, John Stonestreet

Netanyahu claims election win despite party losses


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu emerged the bruised winner of Israel's election on Tuesday, claiming victory despite unexpected losses to resurgent center-left challengers.

Exit polls showed the Israeli leader's Likud party, yoked with the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu group, would still be the biggest bloc in the 120-member assembly with 31 seats, 11 fewer than the 42 they held in the previous parliament.

If the exit polls compiled by three local broadcasters prove correct – and they normally do in Israel – Netanyahu would be on course for a third term in office, perhaps leading a hardline coalition that would promote Jewish settlement on occupied land.

But his weakened showing in an election he himself called earlier than necessary could complicate the struggle to forge an alliance with a stable majority in parliament.

The 63-year-old Israeli leader promised during his election campaign to focus on tackling Iran's nuclear ambitions if he won, shunting Palestinian peacemaking well down the agenda despite Western concern to keep the quest for a solution alive.

The projections showed right-wing parties with a combined strength of 61-62 seats against 58-59 for the center-left.

“According to the exit poll results, it is clear that Israel's citizens have decided that they want me to continue in the job of prime minister of Israel and to form as broad a government as possible,” Netanyahu wrote on his Facebook page.

The centrist Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party, led by former television talk show host Yair Lapid, came second with 18 or 19 seats, exit polls showed – a stunning result for a newcomer to politics in a field of 32 contending parties.

Lapid won support amongst middle-class, secular voters by promising to resolve a growing housing shortage, abolish military draft exemptions for Jewish seminary students and seek an overhaul of the failing education system.

The once dominant Labour party led by Shelly Yachimovich was projected to take third place with 17 seats.

“YESH ATID SWEEP”

The mood was subdued at Netanyahu's Likud party election headquarters after the polls closed, with only a few hundred supporters in a venue that could house thousands.

“We anticipated we would lose some votes to Lapid, but not to this extent. This was a Yesh Atid sweep,” Likud campaign adviser Ronen Moshe told Reuters.

A prominent Likud lawmaker, Danny Danon, told CNN: “We will reach out to everybody who is willing to join our government, mainly the center party of Yair Lapid.”

If the prime minister can tempt Lapid to join a coalition, the ultra-Orthodox religious parties who often hold the balance of power in parliament might lose some of their leverage.

After a lackluster campaign, Israelis voted in droves on a sunny winter day, registering a turnout of 66.6 percent, the highest since 1999 when Netanyahu, serving his first term as premier, was defeated by then-Labour Party leader Ehud Barak.

The strong turnout buoyed center-left parties which had pinned their hopes on energizing an army of undecided voters against Netanyahu and his nationalist-religious allies.

Opinion polls before the election had predicted an easy win for Netanyahu, although the last ones suggested he would lose some votes to the Jewish Home party, which opposes a Palestinian state and advocates annexing chunks of the occupied West Bank.

The exit polls projected 12 seats for Jewish Home.

Full election results are due by Wednesday morning and official ones will be announced on January 30. After that, President Shimon Peres is likely to ask Netanyahu, as leader of the biggest bloc in parliament, to try to form a government.

The former commando has traditionally looked to religious, conservative parties for backing and is widely expected to seek out self-made millionaire Naftali Bennett, who heads the Jewish Home party and stole much of the limelight during the campaign.

But Netanyahu might, as Danon suggested, try to include more moderate parties to assuage Western concerns about Israel's increasingly hardline approach to the Palestinians.

WESTERN ANXIETY

British Foreign Secretary William Hague warned Israel on Tuesday it was losing international support, saying prospects for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were almost dead because of expanding Jewish settlements.

U.S.-brokered peace talks broke down in 2010 amid mutual acrimony. Since then Israel has accelerated construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem – land the Palestinians want for their future state – much to the anger of Western partners.

Netanyahu's relations with U.S. President Barack Obama have been notably tense and Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, told the BBC the election was unlikely to change that.

“President Obama doesn't have high expectations that there's going to be a government in Israel committed to making peace and is capable of the kind of very difficult and painful concessions that would be needed to achieve a two-state solution,” he said.

Tuesday's vote is the first in Israel since Arab uprisings swept the region two years ago, reshaping the Middle East.

Netanyahu has said the turbulence, which has brought Islamist governments to power in several countries long ruled by secularist autocrats, including neighboring Egypt, shows the importance of strengthening national security.

He views Iran's nuclear program as a mortal threat to the Jewish state and has vowed not to let Tehran enrich enough uranium to make a single nuclear bomb – a threshold Israeli experts say could arrive as early as mid-2013.

Iran denies it is planning to build the bomb, and says Israel, widely believed to have the only nuclear arsenal in the Middle East, is the biggest threat to the region.

The issue barely registered during the election campaign, with a poll in Haaretz newspaper on Friday saying 47 percent of Israelis thought social and economic issues were the most pressing concern, against just 10 percent who cited Iran.

One of the first problems to face the next government, which is unlikely to take power before the middle of next month at the earliest, is the stuttering economy.

Data last week showed the budget deficit rose to 4.2 percent of gross domestic product in 2012, double the original estimate, meaning spending cuts and tax hikes look certain.

Reporting by Jerusalem bureau; Editing by Alastair Macdonald

On Election Day, Israel’s undecided voters face moment of truth


Israelis are almost never shy about offering their opinions, especially when it comes to politics.

The problem is that this year, many of them aren’t sure what their opinions are.

As Election Day approached, a large proportion of voters – 15 percent – remained undecided, according to polls. Some of them still were unsure even as they headed for the polls on Jan. 22.

But vote they did: By 4 p.m. Israel time, turnout at the polls stood at 46.6 percent – an increase of 5 percent over the last election, in February 2009.

Israel’s multiplicity of parties presented Israelis with a dizzying array of choices: 32 were in the running, and up to a dozen were expected to land seats in the Knesset. But with so many parties running on similar platforms, and after what many considered a lackluster campaign, many voters said they were disillusioned with their choices.

“No one seems good,” Stephanie Daniel, 28, told JTA. A women’s studies student in Tel Aviv, Daniel said she had vacillated between Hatnua, a party focused on negotiations with the Palestinians and led by former Kadima leader Tzipi Livni, and the left-wing Meretz party. In the end, Daniel said, she chose Hatnua because it advocates for environmental issues.

Her dilemma was not uncommon among young Tel Avivis. As they entered or exited their polling locations, many said they felt torn between the three center-left parties: Hatnua, Labor and Yesh Atid.

“I did a questionnaire on the internet” about who to vote for, said Elian, 27, a political science student at Tel Aviv University. She said that because she was a “social democrat from birth,” she chose the traditionally socialist Labor. But Elian said she saw the appeal of both Livni and Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid, a political newcomer.

“Tzipi [Livni] can lead a state better than Shelly” Yachimovich, the Labor chairwoman, Elian said.  “Yair Lapid is new, and he talks a lot, but Shelly is more my ideology.”

Uri, 31, a Tel Aviv event planner, also found ideology guiding him as he deliberated between Labor, Hatnua, Yesh Atid and Meretz. “There was social pressure,” he said. “One friend feels this way, another that way. But everyone knows on the inside” whom they support.

He ended up voting for Meretz, he said.

Uncertainty lingered on the right, too. Gilad Konforty, 30, an MBA who recently became Orthodox and now studies in a yeshiva, was trying to decide between two Orthodox parties, the Sephardic Shas and the Ashkenazi United Torah Judaism. He went with UTJ.

“They better represent Jewish values and Jewish character,” he said. While Shas has, at times, cooperated with left-wing governments, UTJ “doesn’t move around, they don’t capitulate, they don’t compromise,” he said.

With the right-wing Likud-Beiteinu list widely expected to beat its center-left competitors, some right-leaning voters chose pragmatism over ideology and voted for the party they figured would best be able to influence a Likud-led coalition.

Guy, 33, a Jerusalemite who works in the technology industry, said he chose the pro-settler Jewish Home Party and its Modern Orthodox chairman, Naftali Bennett, over Likud because he wants “to put another kippah in the Knesset.”

“They’ll work together anyway” Guy said. Bennett will “push the government a little to the right. I think he has more concern for the religious sector.”

With so many new parties, voters faced the prospect of a large number of first-timers making it into the Knesset.

“There are a lot of new parties that have talked but have not done anything,” said Yaakov, 47, a banker from Tel Aviv also vacillating between Shas and UTJ. “The old parties didn’t prove themselves.”

Dor Midler, 21, a first-time voter, said she was voting for Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid and his list of political neophytes.

“I just left the army, and he’s the best for young people,” she said. “He’s something new. I’m optimistic. At some point, it has to be OK.”

Uri, the Tel Aviv event planner, said the flood of information available to voters today rendered decisions more difficult.

“You open Facebook, you can see everything that happens,” he said. “Before, it would be that my father votes Likud, so I vote Likud. Now you can see the party platform, what they’ve done, what they haven’t done.”

This year Likud failed to produce a formal party platform.

Dina, 76, a Tel Aviv resident who lost a husband and son in Israel’s wars, said she’s disappointed with Israel’s entire political system.

“Wherever there are Jews, there are never just two parties,” she said. “There are too many parties.”

Dina said she was a faithful Labor voter for decades until 2006, when she felt that the party wasn’t effective and cast a protest vote for the Pensioners’ Party. She said she’s voting cautiously for Livni after flirting with a return to Labor.

Neither party excited her, though there would have been one politician she said would raise her spirits – Shimon Peres, the 89-year-old former Labor prime minister who is Israel’s current president.

“He loves the state,” Dalia said. “There’s not one job he did where he didn’t succeed. He’s the lighthouse of the state.”

Yair Lapid on Israel: Where are we going?


Yair Lapid addresses The Rabbinical Assembly at the 2012 R.A. convention. 

Voters to Netanyahu: Get new friends


These were the most interesting-boring elections one could ever hope for. Boring – as the top job was secured early on by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Fascinating – as the parties, unburdened of having to compete for the top job, were free to combat one another for votes. And, obviously, Israelis paid attention: an intensive, almost hysterical campaign to convince them to go to the polls – preceeded by recent declines in voting turnout and a growing worry that Israelis no longer care as much as they once did – clearly succeeded. Or maybe the hysteria was unnecessary to begin with; maybe the worry was unfounded. Israelis turned out in large numbers to vote in this election; we don’t know why, but we know that they did.

They sent Netanyahu a message, one that he must understand: We – the voters – know that you are the only possible PM for the time being. No other candidate of the needed stature was available for us. We are not sure if you’re really the best candidate to be found, but right now you are the only game in town. However the rules of the game need to be changed. Netanyahu can be Prime Minister, but he can’t be the PM of the right-religious coalition. He can’t be the PM of harsh rhetoric; he can’t be the PM of wild legislation; he can’t be the PM of Haredi power; he can’t be the PM based on a coalition of which he is the most leftist member.

[For more on the Israeli elections, visit Rosner's Domain]

As this article is being written on election night, final results are not yet available. But even if the right-religious bloc can retain a majority large enough to form a coalition of 61, or 62, or even 63 mandates – even if Netanyahu can barely survive based on the traditional “base” of supporters – that isn’t the outcome he was hoping for. It isn’t a vote of affirmation. Netanyahu is lucky to have been the only PM-caliber candidate in the race, and he is lucky to have Yesh Atid – Yair Lapid’s party – as the big surprise of this election. Yesh Atid, unlike other parties on the center and the left, is a partner Netanyahu can live with.

It is a partner that is even comfortable for him. Netanyahu wanted a moderate coalition and now he has an excuse with which to convince his partners to his right that there really is no other choice. He can tell the leaders of Shas that a compromise on the Haredi draft is what the majority of voters forced upon him. He can tell Habait Hayehudi – the right-Zionist-religious party – that with all due respect to the settlements and to building in E1, the voters didn’t give him a mandate to rule from the right. So while the outcome of the elections is hardly an achievement for Netanyahu – it is hardly a compliment for the ruling coalition – the PM can make it work for him.

Most voters should consider this good news, because most voters want Israel to have a centrist policy. Centrist – not leftist. Those supporting the left voted for Meretz — and to the left of Meretz. The left benefited in this cycle from Netanyahu’s inevitable projected victory. When there’s no one to challenge Netanyahu, left-wing voters are not left with the quandary of comprising for a Livni, or an Olmert, in the hope that Netanyahu can be toppled. They can vote their conscience – and they did. The growth of Meretz, a party with dedicated clean-handed and energetic parliamentarians, is good news. Don’t take it from me: Uri Ariel, the settler-supporting right-wing number-two of the Jewish Home Party offered gentlemanly congratulations to Meretz on election night when he was interviewed live on his party’s achievements.

Other voters who didn’t want Netanyahu to remain in office voted for the Labor Party, and for Shelly Yacimovitz. Supporters of Lapid – which appears to have gained close to 20 mandates (not final) – want Netanyahu, but a different version of him. A Haredi-less Netanyahu; a Settler-less Netanyahu.

So the Prime Minister has a choice: If he wants to regain his footing and stay in power — and maybe convince more Israelis that he is the right man for the job and not just the no-alternative default man until someone better comes along –  he’ll have to reconsider his “base.” This isn’t going to be easy for him – Netanyahu has relied on his current base for many years and was planning to hold it together for years to come. The result is that this current cycle may present Netanyahu with a short-term vs. long-term dilemma: If he holds onto his longtime base, he won’t quite be able to form a stable coalition in 2013. But if he dumps the base, he could pay a high price for it in 2014, 2015, 2016. 

In the short term, coalition talks are going to be fascinating and tough. Netanyahu is going to pay a price, and his old partners are going to pay a price if they want to have a viable coalition. Some of them might decide to sit this one out – Shas is a candidate for such a possibility. And the new coalition will be made up of many, many fresh faces – possibly 50 new Knesset members.

This is a parliamentary tsunami — and a headache for the managers of the coming coalition. It is a recipe for instability. It is a recipe for contention and rough relations. The 2013 coalition is going to be fun to watch and easy to dismantle. And it will not last as long as the more coherent – but unacceptable – outgoing coalition.

The problem with Israel’s electoral system


Israel’s electoral system is the root cause of the disheartening polarization and superficiality on display in Israel’s current election season. Many wrongly point to the egos of our politicians as the underlying reason. In reality, powerful constitutional disincentives for collaboration shape our politics.

Israel is a parliamentary democracy, whereby voters elect parties to serve in the 120-seat Knesset, based on proportional representation. Thus, a party that receives 10 percent of the votes would hold 12 seats. After elections, parties must establish a coalition of a minimum of 61 MKs, the head of which becomes the prime minister.

This system encourages divisiveness among the public. The 34 parties that will stand for election next week distinguish themselves by inciting and polarizing: religious versus secular, poor versus rich, Ashkenazim versus Sephardim, periphery against center, hawks against doves, Jews against Arabs. On the right, the joint list of the Likud and Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beitenu is losing power to smaller sectoral parties such as Shas and Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi. On the left, Yair Lapid, Tzipi Livni, Shelly Yachimovich and Shaul Mofaz — of Yesh Atid, Hatnua, Labor and Kadima, respectively — failed to join forces in spite of evident similarities in their vision.

Meanwhile, after the elections, some of these parties inevitably will make up the next government, and many of them will repeatedly join forces on various legislative initiatives. Hence, while the public remains divided, the politicians collaborate.

A reversal of this pattern could be readily available through a simple amendment establishing as prime minister the head of the party that gets the highest number of votes. This would encourage politicians to join forces in inclusive political frameworks and broad sectors of the population to support two ruling Zionist parties on the right and on the left. It would also incentivize politicians to be centrist and pragmatic.

I hope that such a change will be the legacy of the coming Knesset. There will be a large parliamentary block that would support such a reform, and powerful forces are gearing up with the civil society as well. The position of the likely Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Likud Party will be key, as in the current election campaign they have been the primary victim of the present electoral system.

Finally, a thought on the U.S. political system: The polarization of American politics and the deadlock in Washington may also result from a crisis in its electoral system. Decades of gerrymandering have turned most electoral districts into either red or blue, breeding ideological politicians who cater to their ideological bases and not pragmatically to the center. The United States thrived when it was purple. It is muddling through when it is red or blue. Go purple.

A final note: My personal perspective on these issues dates back to 1999: My service in the Bureau of the Prime Minister between 1999 and 2001 exposed me to the structural failure of Israeli governance. After a year at Harvard’s Kennedy School (class of 2002), I launched Re’ut to generate substantive impact, as well as an initiative named Yesodot (Foundations) to reform Israeli governance, which was active until 2004. I have served the cause of electoral reform ever since and am proud that the core logic of Yesodot is now commonly accepted by all other groups working toward this end.


Gidi Grinstein is the founder and president of the Re’ut Institute in Tel Aviv.

Former Israeli PM Olmert will not run in election, aide says


Former Israeli leader Ehud Olmert put an end to weeks of political suspense on Thursday with a decision not to run against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in January's election.

The centrist Olmert had been mulling a political comeback since October, when Netanyahu called the election after his government failed to agree on the 2013 budget.

“He is not running,” his aide, Yanki Galanti, told Reuters.

Olmert, 67, was forced to quit as prime minister in 2008 over corruption charges of which he was largely acquitted this year. He is internationally credited for pursuing peace with the Palestinians.

Right-wing Netanyahu, who polls predict will win the ballot, has come under international pressure in the past week after his government announced plans to expand Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem and in the West Bank, territory the Palestinians want for a future state.

Israeli commentators were divided on whether an Olmert candidacy would have helped to unite an already splintered centre-left opposition, or would have further fractured the bloc.

Israelis go to the polls on January 22.

Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Douglas Hamilton and Pravin Char

Israel’s crazy election cycle


This might be the craziest election cycle in the history of Israel. It is short, but not a week passes without shifts and changes in the political landscape: On Nov. 26, it was Defense Minister Ehud Barak resigning from his post to pursue new horizons. Barak is the cat with nine lives, perhaps even more, but his next incarnation will not be a political one — or so he says.

In fact, it’s been clear for a while that his political future might be in doubt (I have witnesses in Los Angeles whom I told two weeks ago that Barak’s political career is probably over). Benjamin Netanyahu could not give him what he really wanted — a place within the Likud Party and another term at Defense. His party, Atzmaut (Independence), wasn’t taking off. Going back to the Labor Party wasn’t an option. So a dignified departure seemed the appealing choice.

Our Israel Poll Trends tracker was updated on Monday (to see it, visit my blog at jewishjournal.com/rosnersdomain/). But our statistician-in-chief, professor Camil Fuchs, keeps having to make alterations to the graph. True, Netanyahu began this cycle as the most likely candidate to lead the next coalition and is still likely to keep his job as prime minister — the Likud-right-religious political bloc currently has 69 mandates, according to Fuchs. All other things, however, are moving quickly: Parties form and crumble, alliances are shaped, old rivals find common ground, ideologies become blurred. If Israelis are somewhat cynical about the motivations of their leaders, they should be forgiven. If they seem confused, that, too, should be patiently tolerated.

Think about the following duos:

Netanyahu and Lieberman: With all other parts of the puzzle moving, the merger of Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman now seems like an island of stability and calm. Barak, by deciding to make his dramatic announcement now, somewhat helped the Likud Party to make even the primary debacle go away.

Livni and Olmert: As of now, it seems that Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni will not be running together. Or maybe they will. One thing is for sure: Wearing the mantle of decision-maker is becoming tricky for these two politicians, who can’t seem to make up their minds. 

Yachimovich and Lapid: The Labor Party is another island of relative stability and is ideologically coherent. Shelly Yachimovich is going to be the big winner in these elections. Her slogan was written for her by her rivals: One real party against the many ad hoc job seekers. Yair Lapid will be the big loser. If one wants a makeshift, incoherent, centrist-in-the-sense-that-it-has-no-clear-agenda, Ashkenazi, upper-middle-class party — if one wants the new incarnation of Kadima, without the heavyweights Ariel Sharon and Shimon Peres — one will vote for the new Livni party.

On Tuesday, Livni was back, as promised. She gave a good speech but had no list of candidates yet, and no real prospect of becoming prime minister. Fuchs explains on our Israel Poll Trends that, so far, Livni is simply stealing votes from other parties in the same political bloc — the center-left. She’ll have to be able to steal a lot from the other bloc to make her presence of any significance.

Further news: The Likud Party has elected its candidates for the next Knesset, and, as usual, the list was greeted with definitions such as “radical,” “extreme” and the like.

Fact: The Likud is a right-wing party — it’s time people got used to it. 

Fact: Israeli voters — unlike their representatives in most media outlets — tend to be quite fond of right-wing political parties.

Fact: In every election cycle, a number of familiar faces are forced out, to be replaced by newcomers, and every time, the knee-jerk response is something in the mode of, “How can this novice replace that veteran?” Well, in many cases they can. Give them a term or two and they will also become veterans. 

Fact: Benny Begin and Dan Meridor will be missed, but their absence from the list is not as significant as political rivals of the party would like you to believe. When Begin was elected five years ago on the Likud list, the Kadima Party — back then, the main party of the other “bloc” — greeted him by saying that Begin was proof of the radicalization of the Likud. Today, Kadima is arguing that the elimination of Begin is proof of such radicalization.

As of press time on Tuesday, the week was not yet over: The Labor Party — probably the leading party of the center-left this round — will be electing its representatives on Thursday. The question for Friday will be: Did it pick a “radical” and “extreme” list of left-wingers? Party leader Yachimovich is working hard to prevent such an outcome, but it’s not clear if she’ll be able to get what she wants (among other things, not to have the head of Peace Now on the list).


Shmuel Rosner is the Journal’s senior political editor. He is the author of “The Jewish Vote: Obama vs. Romney: A Jewish Voter’s Guide” (Jewish Journal Books), available at amazon.com.

Computer woes force Likud to extend hours in primary vote


Polls will remain open past midnight in Likud Party primary voting following computer malfunctions at several polling stations.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the chairman of the ruling Likud, made the announcement Sunday of the longer voting hours following malfunctions at several stations, including the 80 computerized voting systems at Jerusalem's main polling station at the International Convention Center.

The problems led to calls by party leaders to postpone the vote after voters were turned away at some polling stations or left without casting their ballots after waiting a long time.

The party's 123,351 members are voting to select the Knesset list ahead of the Jan. 22 national elections. The polls opened at 9 a.m.

Some 97 Likud candidates are competing for 25 realistic spots on the Likud's Knesset list.

Meanwhile, Yair Lapid, head of the newly formed centrist party Yesh Atid, or There is a Future, said Sunday that he had offered former Kadima Party head Tzipi Livni the second slot on his party's list, and promised that she would be a full partner in all major decisions.

“Splitting the centrist bloc is not good for Israel, and I am calling her to join forces and change the country together,” he wrote on his Facebook page.

Five Jewish takeaways from the 2012 election


The prime minister of Israel does not speak for the Jews of America, nor do many of the Jewish organizations.

One of the most significant losers of Election Day was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who openly opposed President Barack Obama from the very beginning of his administration, first on settlements and then on the question of Iran. He went to Congress and to his friends on the Republican right to appeal to the American people over the head of the president and used AIPAC to arouse the American Jewish community against the Obama administration. Most recently, he pushed for a presidential commitment to specific military action before the election holding the president seemingly hostage and the Jewish vote in balance. No longer!

Jews voted overwhelming for President Obama 70 percent, more than two in three — and they just didn’t buy the arguments that the Jewish right, the Israeli prime minister and the Republican candidate were offering. Obama had not thrown Israel under the bus; worse yet, if he had, Jews just didn’t care enough to cost him Florida, New York or California. Equally important, they cast aside the hyperbole that has been filling our e-mails and our Jewish papers, calling the president every name in the book, declaring an emergency when none was apparent, crying wolf all too often. American Jews paid more attention to the support that this administration has offered to Israel militarily and politically. They paid more attention to Israel’s president, defense minister and Israeli security officials than to the prime minister. They do not know Israel’s foreign minister.

And now the tide is turned. Netanyahu is the candidate, Obama will never again face the electorate, and the Israeli people must decide if they want to re-elect a prime minister whose relationship with the American president is, to say the least, problematic, if not dysfunctional. I presume the president will be what the prime minister was not — gracious. Bibi threatened; he could not deliver.

The American electorate is changing.

The Romney campaign had one model of the American electorate, the Obama campaign had a very different model and the Obama campaign was right. The Hispanic vote will only increase and America is more diverse, more colorful, more pluralistic and more religiously diverse than ever before. Jewish outreach to these communities must continue, and though Evangelical support for Israel has been strong, the outreach of the Jewish community must be more nuanced, more inclusive. 

There are great divisions within the American Jewish community and even greater divisions between American Jews and Israelis of American origin.

The Jewish right and the vast majority of American Jews are seeing two different realities and experiencing the world through different lenses. These divisions are real. And though many Jewish activists may be on the right, they could not deliver the people, and if Jewish institutional life continues to tilt rightward it may well find itself without a constituency. 

We must also subdivide the Jewish vote to understand its true implications and thus see the divisions between the Orthodox — Modern and Charedi — and the non-Orthodox to truly understand how divided we are. Nate Silver was right about the election; Peter Beinart may not have been wrong about American Jews despite the many attempts to refute him. 

Polls in Israel found that four out of five dual Americans living in Israel who voted by absentee ballot supported Gov. Romney. That was almost the polar opposite of the way in which their American Jewish kin who remained in the United States voted. The gap is wide and growing. Perhaps one of the reasons they immigrated to Israel was because of a certain alienation from the American Jewish community and the direction of American life. Perhaps because they did not have to face the consequences of living under the domestic policies advocated by the Republican right, they could concentrate solely on Israel.

I suspect that I was not alone in feeling that the economic collapse of 2008 was a compelling argument against deregulation and for Dodd-Frank and that the social safety net could not be abandoned. Perhaps I am not the only American Jew to feel that the Jewish ethos taught me a communitarian ethic of concern, compassion and community and that the emphasis on rugged isolated individualism was alien and potentially cruel. Perhaps I was not a lonely American Jew singularly unimpressed that vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan’s hero was Ayn Rand. Perhaps I am not the only Jew of privilege willing to pay more in taxes for the common good.

On the international front, during the last Republican administration the United States fought two wars incompetently, entered one war under pretenses that proved false, and transformed the geopolitical balance of the Middle East in such a way that Iran was strengthened (by the weakening of Iraq) and Hamas was put in power by the commitment to democracy that became the ideology employed to justify the wars. The last Republican administration ended when the United States of America was at its weakest point in my lifeline, and it seemed as if the same people would return to power under a Romney administration. I was not moved by the prominent role of Ambassador John Bolton, or assured by the presence in the Romney camp of pro-Israel Dan Senor, who had worked for Paul Bremer when the disastrous decision was made to dismantle the Iraqi army. I was less than thrilled by the prominent role that former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice played at the Republican convention. What were the lessons of Iraq for the American people?

And for those few American Jews who heeded the advice of my distinguished friend Rabbi David Wolpe and voted only on the question of Iran, one has to wonder which candidate were they to support as Israeli opposition to an Israeli attack grows and as sanctions seem to be destabilizing the Iranian regime? Who do they vote for as one Israeli official after another — including the prime minister — accepted the assessment of the American government regarding when Iran would be capable of building a nuclear weapon?

Social Issues count for the American Jewish community.

We are notoriously liberal on issues such as abortion, contraception, birth control and on gays. We are unburdened by the Catholic conception of original sin. In Roman Catholic theology the fetus is innocent life. A child who enters the world is tainted by original sin and loses its innocence. We find considerations of the “personhood” amendment alien to Jewish religious values. Jewish tradition encourages stem cell research — we are religiously bound to assist God in the healing process. And few of us have any religious problem with in vitro fertilization. Be fruitful and multiply is the first commandment issued to humanity in the Torah; would that Jews, who are not reproducing in numbers sufficient for the growth of the Jewish community, observed it (so says the father of four).

Policies toward the elderly are essential to a Jewish community that is significantly older than the American population as a whole, and if we are to take the New York Jewish community recent population study seriously, policies toward the poor — yes, there are a large number of Jewish poor — are also quite important. If Orthodox Jews, especially within the Charedi community, voted against Obama in overwhelming numbers, they voted against their own economic interests. 

Most Jews I know supported the push to universal health care and many have changed their views regarding gay rights – certainly our children have. And in my family, their attitude, as well as the fact that my former neighbors were a happily married gay couple, forced me to rethink my positions. My neighbor’s marriage posed no problem to the stability of my family, to the nature of my marriage. 

There is a difference between passion and numbers.

The Jewish right had deep passion to get rid of the president. They pulled out all the stops and spent fortunes of money. I am quite certain that Sheldon Adelson has made better investments in other aspects of his career. Yet even though in politics passion counts for a lot, and the passionate can make a lot of noise, in the end, they could not deliver the people and, at least on Election Day, numbers count.


Michael Berenbaum is professor of Jewish studies and director of the Sigi Ziering Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Ethics at American Jewish University. Find his A Jew blog at jewishjournal.com/a_jew.

Netanyahu congratulates Obama on re-election


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu congratulated U.S. President Barack Obama on Wednesday for winning a second term and said the strategic alliance between their two countries was “stronger than ever”.

“I will continue to work with President Obama to ensure the interests that are vital for the security of Israel's citizens,” Netanyahu, who has had a testy relationship with the U.S. leader, said in a short written statement.

One major rift between the two leaders has been their approach in dealing with Iran's nuclear aspirations, with the United States urging Netanyahu not to launch any go-it-alone military action.

Netanyahu faces his own electoral test in January, when Israel holds a national ballot that opinion polls predict his right-wing Likud party will win.

Netanyahu's defence minister, Ehud Barak, who was a frequent visitor to Washington over the past four years, said in his own statement he had no doubt Obama will continue his policies, which “fundamentally support Israel's security”.

“It is possible to overcome any differences in positions that may arise,” Barak said.

Fighting over every percentile: Arguing about the Jewish vote and exit polls


President Obama’s Jewish numbers are down, but by how much and why?

Get ready for four more years of tussling between the Jewish community’s Republicans and Democrats about the meaning of Obama’s dip from 78 percent Jewish support cited in 2008 exit polls to 69 percent this year in the national exit polls run by a media consortium.

Is it a result of Obama’s fractious relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu? Or is it a natural fall-off in an election that was closer across the board than it was four years ago? Does it reflect a significant shift in Jewish voting patterns toward the Republicans?

A separate national exit poll released Wednesday by Jim Gerstein, a pollster affiliated with the dovish Israel policy group J Street, had similar numbers: 70 percent of respondents said they voted for Obama, while 30 percent — the same figure as in the media consortium's Jewish sample — said they voted for Mitt Romney.

Matt Brooks, who directs the Republican Jewish Coalition, said the $6.5 million his group spent and the $1.5 million an affiliated political action committee spent wooing Jewish voters was “well worth it.”

“We’ve increased our share of the Jewish vote by almost 50 percent,” he said, noting that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the 2008 Republican nominee, got 22 percent in that year’s exit polls to Romney’s 30 percent this year.

Brooks said that his group’s hard-hitting ads, which attacked Obam on his handling of both Israel and the economy, helped move the needle. “There’s no question we got significant return on our investment,” he said.

Democrats insisted that the needle didn’t wiggle so much, saying the more reliable 2008 number for Obama's shae of the Jewish vote was 74 percent, a figure that is based on a subsequent review of data by The Solomon Project, a nonprofit group affiliated with the National Jewish Democratic Council.

“Right now 69 or 70 is the best number we have for this cycle, and 74 percent is the best number we have for four years ago,” said Steve Rabinowitz, a consultant to Jewish and Democratic groups, including the NJDC. “You can intentionally use a number you know has been corrected just for the purposes of comparison, or you can use the data.”

The 2008 numbers, like this year’s, are based on the 2 percent of respondents identifying as Jewish in the major exit poll run by a consortium of news agencies — altogether, between 400-500 Jews, out of a total of over 25,000 respondents. The Solomon Project review, by examining a range of exit polls taken in different states as well as the national consortium, used data garnered from close to a thousand Jewish voters, a number that reduces the margin of error from about 6 points to 3 points.

Whether the 2008 percentage was 74 or 78 — or some other number entirely given the margins of errror — both Republicans and Democrats agreed that Obama’s share of the Jewish vote had declined. Rabinowitz conceded that the Republican expenditure, which dwarfed spending on the Democratic side, might have had an impact.

“What yichus is there in the possibility of having picked up a handful of Jewish votes having spent so many millions of dollars?” Rabinowitz asked, using the Yiddish word connoting status.

Gerstein said his findings suggested that the Republican blitz of Jewish communities in swing states like Ohio and Florida had little effect; separate polls he ran in those states showed virtually the same results as his national poll of Jewish voters. Gerstein’s national poll of 800 Jewish voters has a margin of error of 3.5 percent; his separate polls of Jewish voters in Ohio and Florida canvassed 600 in each state, with a margin of error of 4 percentage points.

He also noted that there were similar drop-offs in Obama’s overall take — from 53 percent of the popular vote in 2008 to 49 percent this year — as well as among an array of sub groups, including whites, independents, Catholics, those with no religion, those under 30. The only uptick for the president in the media consortium’s exit polls was seen among Hispanic voters, likely turned off by Romney’s tough line on illegal immigration.

“You see a lot of things that are tracking between the Jewish constituency and other constituencies when you look at the shift in Obama’s vote between 2008 and now, “ he said.

The NJDC president, David Harris, attributed what shift there was to the economy.

“American Jews are first and foremost Americans, and like all Americans it’s a difficult time for them,” he said. “The Democratic vote performance has decreased somewhat.”

Gerstein said that the mistake Republicans continued to make was to presume that Israel was an issue that could move the Jewish vote.

“They’ve got to do something very different if they’re going to appeal to Jews,” he said. “The hard-line hawkish appeal to Israel isn’t working.”

He cited an ad run in September in Florida by an anti-Obama group called Secure America Now that featured footage from a press conference in which Netanyahu excoriated those who he said had failed to set red lines for Iran, which was seen as a jab at Obama. Gerstein said that of the 45 percent of his Florida respondents who saw the ad, 56 percent said they were not moved by it, 27 percent said it made them more determined to vote for Obama and only 16 percent said i made them more determined to vote for Romney.

Israel did not feature high among priorities in Gerstein’s polling, a finding that conformed with polling done over the years by the American Jewish Committee. Asked their top issue in voting, 53 percent of Gerstein’s respondents in his national poll cited the economy and 32 percent health care. Israel tied for third with abortion and terrorism at 10 percent.

Gerstein’s national poll showed Obama getting strong overall approval ratings of 67 percent of his respondents, with strong showings on domestic issues like entitlements — where he scored 65 percent — and majority approval of his handling of relations with Israel (53 percent) and the Iranian nuclear issue (58 percent.).

But the RJC's Brooks said he was confident Republicans would continue to accrue gains, saying that with the exception of Obama’s strong showing in 2008, his party has steadily increased its proportion of the Jewish vote since George H. W. Bush got 11 percent in 1992.

“Our investment is not in the outcome of a single election,” he said. “It’s ultimately about broadening the base of the Republican Party in the Jewish community.”

Opinion: The case for President Obama’s reelection


The Obama administration has strongly supported Israel’s security by helping to construct the Iron Dome, by backing Israel’s responses to rocket attacks from Gaza and by coordinating closely with its military.

The case for the reelection of President Barack Obama is compelling for several important reasons.

Let me begin with our future and the future of our children. The composition of the US Supreme Court over the next 30 years may be decided during the next four years. There are now three justices who will turn 80 and one who will be close to 80 during this presidential term. The remaining justices – including conservative Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito – are relatively young.

Whoever is elected the next president may get to appoint as many as four justices in their 40’s or 50’s. These justices may well serve thirty or more years on the High Court, and if they are as reactionary as the current young justices, will form a firm and long lasting majority.

Republican candidate Mitt Romney has said that he would fill the Supreme Court vacancies with justices like Scalia, Alito and Thomas. A court with such a right wing majority will change America for the worse. It will dismantle the wall of separation between church and state and embolden those who seek to Christianize America. It will eliminate a woman’s right to chose abortion and will set back the trend toward equality for all Americans regardless of sexual orientation. It will continue to strike down progressive legislation, such as gun control, campaign reform and laws protecting the rights of minorities.

Few Americans, as a matter of history, vote on the basis of who will be nominated to serve on the Supreme Court and other federal courts. More should do so because our third branch of government is every bit as important as the first two branches and has considerable influence on the lives and liberties of Americans. The case for Barack Obama includes his record in appointing moderates rather than right wing ideologues to the judiciary, and most especially to the Supreme Court.

The case for Barack Obama also includes his approach to foreign policy, which has improved the standing of America around the world. Under the Bush administration many of our strongest allies became alienated by America’s unilateralism. The Obama administration has worked closely with our allies to impose the harshest possible sanctions on Iran, to depose Muammar Gaddafi and to help keep the Arab Spring from turning into an extremist Muslim winter. President Obama also succeeded in killing bin Laden and crippling al-Qaida. It is clearly still a work in progress but it is moving in the right direction.

With regards to Iran, which poses the most immediate threat to the security of the United States and its allies, most especially Israel, the policy of the Obama administration is crystal clear: It has taken containment off the table and kept the military option on the table. Everyone hopes that the military option will not have to be employed, since it would entail considerable loss of life, especially among Israeli civilians who would be targeted by Hezbollah rockets fired in retaliation against any attack on Iran.

But the best way to avoid the need for military action is for the Iranian mullahs to believe that the United States will never allow them to develop nuclear weapons. If they believe that reality then the pain of the sanctions will pressure them to give up their nuclear ambitions. President Obama has clearly stated that he is not bluffing when he says that his administration will never allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons. A second term president generally has more credibility than a first term president when it comes to threatening military action.

The Obama administration has strongly supported Israel’s security by helping to construct the Iron Dome, by backing Israel’s responses to rocket attacks from Gaza and by coordinating closely with its military.

When it comes to re-energizing the moribund peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, Romney has said that he would do nothing other than kick the can down the road.

President Obama, on the other hand, would almost certainly try to bring the parties together to achieve a two state solution that guaranteed Israel’s security while allowing the Palestinians to govern themselves.

Finally, the case for Obama’s reelection should focus heavily on how much better the economy is doing today than it did under his predecessor. A recent report by the International Monetary Fund establishes that the United States leads all other wealthy nations in the recovery from the deep recession of the past several years. The revitalization of the automobile industry has produced many new jobs and the trends are looking in the right direction for greater job creation throughout the country.

Moreover, the Obama program promises more equality in taxation, more allocation of resources to education, and a healthier America with better access both to health care and to insurance. A well-educated and healthy America is a good prescription not only for more jobs but also for better jobs and for keeping good jobs at home.

All in all, the case for the reelection of Barack Obama is a compelling one, based not only on his past record but on the specific policies he has proposed for the next four years.

President Obama has earned my vote on the basis of his excellent judicial appointments, his consensus building foreign policy and the improvements he has brought about in the disastrous economy he inherited.

Opinion: Obama has made Israel stronger than ever


A famous scholar of American Jewish life once observed that we “earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans”.  We are committed to building a just and compassionate society and want our nation to provide a safety net with basic social services, even if we might not personally benefit from such programs.

We also know that on women’s issues, on gay rights, on Medicare, and on making sound investments in our economic future there is simply no comparison between the parties.  Between President Obama’s humane values and the Republican dog-eat-dog vision for society.

The Republicans know that they cannot hope to appeal to Jewish voters when domestic issues are what’s on the table.  Rather than offering a sensible domestic program that our community might support, they have therefore courted our votes the only way they know how: on foreign policy.  But try as they might, the GOP cannot obliterate the fact that President Obama has spent four years making our ally Israel stronger than ever before.

Faced with this daunting situation, Mitt Romney and the GOP have built a campaign for Jewish votes on rumor and innuendo, suggesting that we have somehow thrown Israel “under the bus”.  They have used Super PACs and unfettered secret money to fuel a massive negative advertising campaign targeted at Jewish voters.  But they keep coming up against an inconvenient obstacle: the truth.

President Obama has demonstrated a very serious commitment to defending Israel against Iran.  He has rejected a policy of merely trying to contain and deter an Iran armed with nuclear weapons.  Instead, he has vowed he will never permit Iran to get to that point.  And he has made clear he will not shy away from using force to stop Iran’s nuclear program should it get that far.

The Republicans advocate taking a risky gamble on Mitt Romney’s lofty promises, but only President Obama has a proven track record on this issue.   He has imposed more severe unilateral sanctions than ever before and leveraged America’s restored prestige to convince our European allies to embargo Iranian oil.  As a result, Iran’s currency has crashed and its leaders are panicking.

Meanwhile, it seems we learn more information every day about how Mitt Romney has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars from his own fortune in Russian, Chinese, and other foreign companies that do sensitive business with the regime in Iran.  How can we trust Romney’s public promises when his own behavior says otherwise?

Nor can the GOP hide Governor Romney’s repeated gaffes on the campaign trail, which betray a dangerous misunderstanding of Israel’s strategic challenges.  In private settings, not only does he suggest that 47% percent of Americans should be abandoned by their government, but he also mistakenly claims that the West Bank shares a border with Syria and argues that helping Israel seek peace would not be worth his while if elected president.

Many Republican advertisements have even twisted the words of Israeli leaders for domestic political gain. Yet we know that treating Israel like a partisan football is bad for America and bad for Israel.

Far from abandoning Israel, President Obama has helped make the Jewish State stronger than ever before, delivering more military assistance than any prior Republican or Democratic administration.

President Obama has also  provided critical support for Israel’s protection against missile attacks or rockets, doubling our funding for the Arrow and David’s Sling defense systems.  He pioneered the idea of providing U.S. funding for the Iron Dome anti-rocket program that has already begun to save Israeli lives.

Obama secretly gave Israel “bunker buster” bombs in 2009, which Bush repeatedly refused to do, constraining Israel’s capabilities versus Iran. Obama expanded American efforts to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program in secret, and those efforts – including the Stuxnet computer virus – have slowed Iran’s ambitions considerably.

Israel’s leaders know the truth of the President’s record. That’s why Netanyahu told AIPAC that “our security cooperation is unprecedented.” and soon afterwards suggested Obama deserves a “badge of honor” for his defense of Israel at the UN.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has praised the President for Washington’s “wide, all-encompassing, and unprecedented” security cooperation under his watch.  He observed that, “honestly this administration under President Obama is doing in regard to our security more than anything I can remember in the past.”

Put simply, even if he and Netanyahu are not exactly the best of buddies, when it comes to Israel’s security President Obama never says one thing in public and does another in private.  He is a president who feels a visceral, personal commitment and then follows through.  A commitment to Israel’s defense.  A commitment to fighting nuclear proliferation, starting with Iran.  As journalist Jeffrey Goldberg describes it, a leader who really feels it in his kishkes.

President Barack Obama has passed the kishke test.  Now, there’s one more problem for Republicans: can we really say the same about Mitt Romney?


Dr. Weinberg is a Non-Resident Fellow at the UCLA Center for Middle East Development and formerly served as a Mideast advisor to the late Representative Tom Lantos.

On the issues: Obama and Romney on abortion, Iran, Israel and more


JTA reviews the positions of presidential candidates Barack Obama, the Democratic incumbent, and Republican challenger Mitt Romney on some issues of importance to the Jewish community.

ABORTION



Obama:

Obama says he is “committed to protecting a woman’s right to choose” and has suggested that the Supreme Court decision affirming abortion rights — Roe v. Wade — is “probably hanging in the balance” this election. Obama has opposed efforts to de-fund Planned Parenthood, citing its work as a provider of women’s health care services.



Romney:

The Republican nominee vows to be “a pro-life president” and has repudiated his previous backing for abortion rights, though he supports allowing abortion in instances of rape, incest and danger to the health or life of the mother. He wants the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade, thus allowing states to set their own abortion laws.

Romney has said that there is “no legislation with regards to abortion that I'm familiar with that would become part of my agenda.” He has said that he would support a constitutional amendment that defines life as beginning at conception. He advocates ending federal funding of Planned Parenthood, citing its role as an abortion provider.



HEALTH CARE



Obama:

The president says that the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act — often referred to as “Obamacare” — is a historic advance. The law aims to make coverage universal by offering federal subsidies for many insurance buyers, expanding Medicaid eligibility for low-income families, setting up health insurance exchanges to offer choices and mandating that everyone has insurance or be subject to a penalty. It bans discrimination on the basis of preexisting conditions and prohibits lifetime caps on coverage.

On Medicare, the president touts the health reform law’s provisions that he says help close the “doughnut hole” in the program’s prescription drug benefit and achieve an estimated $716 billion in future Medicare cost savings.

He opposes what he characterizes as Romney’s plan to turn Medicare into a “voucher” program, arguing that it would be costly for seniors. The Obama campaign says that the Republican nominee’s proposed cap on federal Medicaid spending growth amounts to a dramatic cutting of the budget for the federal-state program that provides health coverage to the needy.

Obama touts the health care reform law’s requirement that insurers cover contraception.

Romney:


The Republican nominee promises to work immediately to repeal the health care reform law. He says that individual states should have the ability to craft their own approaches to health care. He says he wants to promote greater competition in the health care system and give consumers more choices.

Romney proposes transforming Medicare into what he calls a “premium support system.” Under the system, seniors would receive a defined contribution amount from the government that could be applied toward an array of private insurance options that Romney says would have to be comparable to what Medicare offers, as well as a traditional government-provided Medicare option that would compete with the private plans. If a plan’s premium exceeds the government’s contribution, seniors who choose such a plan would pay the difference. He promises Medicare would remain unchanged for current beneficiaries and those now nearing retirement age.

He accuses the president of cutting $716 billion from Medicare in order to pay for the other provisions of the health reform law.

Romney has called for transforming Medicaid into a program in which the federal government gives block grants to the states and allows them greater flexibility to define eligibility and benefits. He would place a strict cap on the annual rate of increase in the federal government’s contribution to Medicaid, limiting it to 1 percent above inflation.


IRANIAN NUCLEAR PROGRAM


Obama:

The president has said that it is “unacceptable” for Iran to have a nuclear weapon and the United States is “going to take all options necessary to make sure they don’t have a nuclear weapon.” He has ruled out the possibility of simply containing a nuclear-armed Iran.

Obama says his administration has “organized the strongest coalition and the strongest sanctions against Iran in history,” noting the damage that has been done to the Iranian economy.

He said that in any negotiated deal, the Iranians would have to “convince the international community they are not pursuing a nuclear program,” and that there should be “very intrusive inspections.” Obama said Iran would not be allowed to “perpetually engage in negotiations that lead nowhere.”

He accuses Romney of having “often talked as if we should take premature military action.”

Romney:



The Republican nominee calls a nuclear Iran “the greatest threat the world faces, the greatest national security threat.” He says that Iran must be prevented from getting “a nuclear weapons capability.”

Romney says he supports the further tightening of sanctions against Iran and accuses the Obama administration of not moving aggressively enough on this front.

Romney’s running mate, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, says the Obama administration has failed to convey to the Iranians that there is a credible threat of U.S. military action. Romney later said “military action is the last resort. It is something one would only, only consider if all of the other avenues had been — had been tried to their full extent.”

Romney said that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad should be indicted for incitement to genocide over his verbal attacks on Israel’s existence.




ISRAEL


Obama:

The president points to what he calls his administration’s “unprecedented” commitment to Israel’s security, citing the growth in U.S. security assistance and funding for the Iron Dome system to intercept rockets from Gaza. He has promised to do “what it takes to preserve Israel’s qualitative military edge — because Israel must always have the ability to defend itself, by itself, against any threat.”

He has pledged to pursue a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, saying that “a lasting peace will involve two states for two peoples: Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people, and the state of Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people.” He has called for using the 1967 lines with mutually agreed land swaps as the basis for negotiating the borders between Israel and a Palestinian state.

Obama opposed Palestinian efforts to gain statehood recognition at the United Nations and said the path to a Palestinian state is “negotiations between the parties.” He has demanded that Hamas recognize Israel’s right to exist, renounce violence and abide by past agreements between Israel and the Palestinians.

While the Obama administration has criticized Israeli building in eastern Jerusalem and the West Bank, it also vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlement activities.

Romney:

The Republican nominee says Obama “has thrown Israel under the bus” and has tried to create “daylight” between the United States and Israel. He says the “world must never see any daylight between our two nations.” He vows to “never unilaterally create preconditions for peace talks, as President Obama has done.”

At a meeting with donors that was secretly recorded, Romney expressed pessimism about current possibilities for Israeli-Palestinian peace, explaining that the Palestinians don’t want peace. He suggested the best that could be done would be to “kick the ball down the field and hope that ultimately, somehow, something will happen and resolve it.” But in a later speech he promised to “recommit America to the goal of a democratic, prosperous Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with the Jewish state of Israel.” He says he “will reject any measure that would frustrate direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.”

He has promised to increase military assistance to Israel.




RELIGION AND STATE

Obama:

The president said the “constitutional principle of a separation between church and state has served our nation well since our founding — embraced by people of faith and those of no faith at all throughout our history — and it has been paramount in our work.”

Obama says he “expanded the federal government’s faith-based initiative because it is important for government to partner with faith-based organizations,” citing the role they play in delivering social services.

He says he does not support school vouchers, including to religious schools, because they “can drain resources that are needed in public schools.”

Obama says his administration found a way to respect religious freedom while also ensuring that employees of many religious-affiliated institutions have contraception covered by their health insurance. The administration requires a religious-affiliated institution's insurance provider to directly provide such coverage to employees free of charge when the religious institution objects to providing or paying for such coverage itself.

Romney:

The Republican nominee said “the notion of the separation of church and state has been taken by some well beyond its original meaning. They seek to remove from the public domain any acknowledgment of God.” He said that America’s founders “did not countenance the elimination of religion from the public square.”

Romney says he would allow low-income and special needs students to use federal funds designated for them to enroll in private schools, including in religious schools where permitted by states.

He criticizes the administration’s application of the health care law’s contraception coverage clause to employees of many religious-affiliated institutions, saying that it infringes on religious liberty. He endorsed legislation that would exempt employers from having to cover contraception in their employees’ insurances policies if doing so would contradict an employer’s religious beliefs or moral convictions.

For Obama campaign, trying to put to rest persistent questions about ‘kishkes’


The moment in the final presidential debate when President Obama described his visit to Israel’s national Holocaust museum and to the rocket-battered town of Sderot seemed to be aimed right for the kishkes.

The “kishkes question” — the persistent query about how Obama really feels about Israel in his gut — drives some of the president’s Jewish supporters a little crazy.

Alan Solow, a longtime Obama fundraiser and the immediate past chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said at a training session at the Democratic convention that he “hated” the kishkes question. It “reflects a double standard which our community should be ashamed of. There hasn’t been one other president who has been subject to the kishkes test,” Solow told the gathering of Jewish Democrats.

But it’s a question that has dogged the president nevertheless, fueled by tensions with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over settlements, the peace process and Iran’s nuclear program.

Obama’s Jewish campaign has tried to put these questions to rest by emphasizing his record on Israel, with a special focus on strengthened security ties. In July, the Obama campaign released an eight-minute video that includes footage of Israeli leaders — including Netanyahu — speaking about the president’s support for the Jewish state.

The Obama campaign also has worked to highlight the domestic issues on which Jewish voters overwhelmingly agree with the president’s liberal positions: health care reform, church-state issues, gay marriage and abortion.

Republicans, meanwhile, have made Obama’s approach to Israel a relentless theme of their own Jewish campaign. Billboards on Florida highways read “Obama, Oy Vey!” and direct passersby to a website run by the Republican Jewish Coalition featuring former Obama supporters expressing disappointment with the president’s record on Israel and the economy.

Polls show large majorities of Jewish voters — ranging between 65 and 70 percent in polling before the debates — support the president’s reelection. A September survey from the American Jewish Committee found strong majorities of Jewish voters expressing approval of the president’s performance on every single issue about which they were asked. The survey also found that only very small numbers said Israel or Iran were among their top priorities.

But Republicans are not hoping to win a majority of the Jewish vote. They're looking to capture a larger slice of this historically Democratic constituency, which gave between 74 percent and 78 percent of its vote to Obama in 2008. According to the AJC survey, the president was weakest with Jews on U.S.-Israel relations and Iran policy, with sizable minorities of nearly 39 percent expressing disapproval of his handling of each of these two issues, with almost as many saying they disapproved of Obama’s handling of the economy.

Critics of the president’s Middle East record have pointed to Obama’s difficult relationship with Netanyahu. Top Jewish aides to Obama say that differences between the president and Netanyahu were inevitable.

“The conversations between them, they are in the kind of frank detailed manner that close friends share,” said Jack Lew, Obama’s chief of staff. Lew spoke to JTA from Florida, where he was campaigning in a personal capacity for the president’s reelection. “It should surprise no one that there have been some political disagreements. The prime minister, even on the Israeli political spectrum, is center right; the president, on the American spectrum, is center left. But you could not have a closer working relationship.”

Indeed, the relationship between the two men was beset by mutual suspicions before either even took office. In February 2008, at a meeting with Cleveland Jewish leaders, then-candidate Obama said that being pro-Israel did not have to mean having an “unwavering pro-Likud” stance.

Dennis Ross, who had served as Obama’s top Middle East adviser, said the president was able to set aside whatever philosophical concerns he had about Netanyahu and his Likud Party. “Once it became clear who he was going to be dealing with, you work on the basis of you deal with whichever leader was there,” said Ross, who is now a senior counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Republicans have zeroed in on remarks Obama made at a July 2009 meeting with Jewish leaders. After one of the attendees encouraged Obama to avoid public disagreements with Israel and keep to a policy of “no daylight” between the two countries, the president reportedly responded that such an approach had not yielded progress toward peace in the past.

In their debates, Romney has picked up on this issue in his criticisms of Obama, accusing the president of saying “he was going to create daylight between ourselves and Israel.”

The Republican nominees’ supporters amplified the criticism. Romney “will stand with Israel – not behind her, but beside her – with no ‘daylight’ in between,” the Republican Jewish Coalition said in a statement after the final presidential debate.

Yet Obama’s performance in that debate — in which he repeatedly cited Israel’s concerns about developments in the region, from Syria to Iran, and took what was perhaps his toughest line to date on Iran’s nuclear program — drew accolades from his Jewish supporters.

“He made me very proud last night for many reasons, but especially for his unequivocal, rock solid declarations of support for Israel,” Robert Wexler, the former Florida congressman who has become one of the campaign’s top Jewish surrogates, told JTA the next day, speaking from South Florida, where he was campaigning for the president.

At one point in the debate, Romney had criticized Obama for not having visited Israel as president. Obama pivoted, contrasting his own visit to Israel as a candidate in 2008 to Romney’s visit in July, which included a fundraiser with major GOP donors.

“And when I went to Israel as a candidate, I didn't take donors, I didn't attend fundraisers, I went to Yad Vashem, the — the Holocaust museum there, to remind myself the — the nature of evil and why our bond with Israel will be unbreakable,” Obama said.

“And then I went down to the border towns of Sderot, which had experienced missiles raining down from Hamas,” he continued. “And I saw families there who showed me where missiles had come down near their children's bedrooms, and I was reminded of — of what that would mean if those were my kids, which is why, as president, we funded an Iron Dome program to stop those missiles. So that's how I've used my travels when I travel to Israel and when I travel to the region.” (Romney, The Times of Israel reported, has also been to Yad Vashem and Sderot on past trips to Israel.)

The Obama camp apparently saw in the president’s answer an effective response to questions about the president’s kishkes. It was quickly excerpted for a video that was posted online by the Obama campaign.

Solow said that based on his campaigning, he doesn't see Jewish voters generally buying into the “kishkes” anxiety expressed in the past by some Jewish community leaders.

“I'd like to think our community is more sophisticated than that, and if we're not, we should be,” Solow said. The president “has a longstanding relationship with and interest in the Jewish community, and he takes pride in that.”

Down to the wire, Romney resurrects moderate posture that attracted Jewish support


Mitt Romney’s record as a moderate Republican governor would seem to have made him ideally suited to peel off Jewish votes from President Obama. The problem is that he spent much of the past half decade running from that past.

Now, however, as the campaign draws to a close, Romney is ditching his “severely conservative” primary persona, as he famously described himself, and trying to remind voters about the centrist Republican who once governed Massachusetts. Given his recent rise in the polls, the strategy appears to be paying off.

In addition to enhancing the Republican nominee’s appeal to undecided and swing voters, the shift also could help Romney with a subset of Jewish voters disillusioned with Obama over the economy and the Middle East but who do not necessarily subscribe to conservative positions on domestic and social issues.

While Democrats continue to portray Romney as beholden to the right, his Jewish surrogates have embraced his move to the middle and argue that, if elected, Romney will govern more from the center than his critics suggest.

“It's no different for any politician of any stripe or ilk,” said Fred Zeidman, a Houston businessman and former chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council who is a leading Romney fundraiser. “You look at anybody running, you look at President Obama, he tacks left when he’s campaigning.”

On social issues, Romney's emphasis during the primaries was on the narrative that led him, as governor, to evolve from a supporter of abortion rights to an opponent. But since getting the nomination, he has looked to highlight his differences with more ardent abortion foes, saying in an October interview that abortion legislation is not part of his agenda. On health policy, Romney’s pledge to repeal “Obamacare” now includes a promise to work to preserve aspects of the health care reform that are popular, such as requiring insurance companies to cover people with preexisting conditions.

On Middle East policy — an area seen by his supporters as one of his major selling points to Jewish voters — Romney has also softened some of his tough talk of late. In the candidates’ foreign policy debate, Romney accompanied his longstanding criticism of Obama’s policies on Iran with a reassurace that he would exhaust all options before considering a direct military confrontation.

Romney’s expression of pessimism at a May fundraiser about prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace — an appearance that was secretly recorded and included his now infamous remark about foregoing trying to win over the 47 percent of Americans dependent on government — has been followed by promises to pursue a two-state solution. Speaking at the Virginia Military Institute, Romney vowed to “recommit America to the goal of a democratic, prosperous Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with the Jewish state of Israel.”

Romney’s nods toward the middle have not stopped Democrats from trying to paint him and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), as bearers of a ultra-conservative agenda, with critics lashing the Republican ticket’s positions on Medicare, tax policy and social issues.

“‘Severely conservative’ Romney has pledged to be a ‘pro-life president,’ and when he's tried to give some semblance of moderation, his staunchest anti-choice supporters jump in to knock down any notion that he is anything but solidly in their camp,” David Harris, the National Jewish Democratic Council’s president, wrote recently in the Washington Jewish Week.

Some Jewish supporters, however, counter that Romney’s stance on abortion is not the paramount issue that his critics make it out to be.

“They continue to miss opportunities by harping on the issue of abortion,” Matt Brooks, the Republican Jewish Coalition’s executive director, said in an interview during the Republican convention. “This is something they have been trying to scare people with for decades, and yet access to abortion in this country continues despite having incredibly conservative presidents and a conservative court.”

The RJC has focused much of its effort to woo Jewish voters on Middle East policy, although it also has emphasized the struggling economy. On Israel, Romney has tried to distinguish himself from the president by arguing that he would have a closer and more harmonious relationship with Israel and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who faces an election contest Jan. 22.

“I will make clear that America’s commitment to Israel’s security and survival as a Jewish state is absolute, and will demonstrate that commitment to the world by making Jerusalem the destination of my first foreign trip,” Romney wrote in reply to an American Jewish Committee questionnaire. “Unlike President Obama, I understand that distancing the U.S. from Israel doesn't earn us credibility in the Arab world or bring peace closer.”

Romney’s Israel stance was prominently displayed at the Republican convention with a video highlighting the nominee’s July trip to Israel. He has also promised that as president he would not allow disagreements with Israel to be aired in public.

Many of Romney's advisers on both foreign and domestic policy are Jewish. They include Dan Senor, a former spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority after the U.S. invasion of Iraq and co-author of “Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel's Economic Miracle,” who has risen to prominence as one of the campaign’s most visible foreign policy voices; Eliot Cohen, an international relations scholar and former State Department counselor; Michael Chertoff, President George W. Bush’s second Homeland Security secretary; Dov Zakheim, a former Pentagon comptroller who has a reputation as a foreign policy realist; and Tevi Troy, a former deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services who also served as Jewish liaison for the George W. Bush’s White House.

By the time he made his second run for president, Romney already had built good relationships with Jewish Republicans from his first term as governor and his first presidential run. Romney’s record of moderation made him a natural fit with the party’s Jews, Zeidman said.

“A lot of people in Boston and on Wall Street knew him and respected him,” Zeidman said of the period in 2005-2006 when Romney started exploring his first presidential run. “But he had yet to be in a position where he addressed the Jewish community at large. Now we know what kind of problem solver he is, we know his integrity, his ability to get things done and that as Jews we never have to be concerned about his commitment to the security of the State of Israel.”

Ann Romney has said that she and her husband, as Mormons, feel a kinship with Jews. “Mitt and I can appreciate coming from another heritage,” she told the RJC last year. When he was starting his business career in consulting, Romney reportedly would joke with Jewish colleagues about being fellow outsiders.

For his first job after graduating from Harvard Business School, Romney joined Boston Consulting Group, where he first met a young Benjamin Netanyahu who was employed there at the time. Today, Romney speaks of his strong bond with the Israeli prime minister.

Romney often repeats to Jewish and non-Jewish audiences his favorite Netanyahu story, in which the Israeli leader describes an Israeli soldier in basic training who is told to run a course with an overweight soldier on his shoulder. The punch line: “Government is the guy on your shoulders.”

The space between the individual and the government


Is it the individual citizen who is more important in a free society, or is it the government? It’s easy to see this as the philosophical choice during this election season: One side seems to favor the liberty of the individual, while the other favors the primacy of the government.

But apparently it’s not so simple. 

In a provocative essay in the Weekly Standard titled “The Real Debate,” conservative writer Yuval Levin challenges the individual-versus-government cliché by explaining that “what matters most about society happens in the space between those two, and that creating, sustaining, and protecting that space is a prime purpose of government.”

He adds: “The real debate forced upon us by the Obama years — the underlying disagreement to which the two parties are drawn despite themselves — is in fact about the nature of that intermediate space, and of the mediating institutions that occupy it: the family, civil society, and the private economy.”

The problem, according to Levin, is that these mediating institutions have become a source of bitter ideological conflict. As he sees it, the bigger government becomes, the more it threatens the health of these institutions that live in the middle space.

“Progressives in America have always viewed those institutions with suspicion,” he writes, and have sought to empower the government to put in place “public programs and policies motivated by a single, cohesive understanding of the public interest.”   

Conservatives have resisted such a gross rationalization of society, Levin writes, and “insisted that local knowledge channeled by evolving social institutions — from civic and fraternal groups to traditional religious establishments, to charitable enterprises and complex markets — will make for better material outcomes and a better common life. 

“The life of a society consists of more than moving resources around, and what happens in that space between the individual and the government is vital — at least as much a matter of character formation as of material provision and wealth creation. Moral individualism mixed with economic collectivism only feels like freedom because it liberates people from responsibility in both arenas.”

But real freedom, Levin says, is “only possible with real responsibility. And real responsibility is only possible when you depend upon, and are depended upon by, people you know. It is, in other words, only possible in precisely that space between the individual and the state.”

As it turns out, I got a taste of that “intermediate space” last Sunday night in my neighborhood. 

The occasion was a community wedding at the Modern Orthodox YULA Girls High School.

Two months ago, members of the YULA community heard that one of their former students wanted to get married but couldn’t afford a wedding.

So, the head of school, Rabbi Abraham Lieberman, who always dreamed of using the school’s grounds for a simcha, and the dean of students, Brigitte Wintner, decided the school would “donate” the wedding. (I’m smelling a screenplay.)

Everyone in the community chipped in. Services like catering, flowers, rentals, bar, photographer, musicians, etc. all were either donated or offered at enormous discounts. YULA students, past and present, ran around setting everything up on the big day.

In the courtyard where my oldest daughter spent four years hanging out with her friends, there were now cocktail tables, a bar and waiters passing out appetizers.

In the parking lot where I would park when I had meetings with the head of school, there were multiple rows of folding chairs, a small chuppah and more rabbis than I could count.

On the far side of the lot was a tent covering enough tables to accommodate 250 guests.

Neighbors popped their heads out to discover there was an actual wedding happening on their street.

As I witnessed the ceremony, and saw more than a few grateful tears on the faces of family members, it struck me that maybe this is what Levin meant by the “space” between the individual and the government.

Yes, both the individual and the government are vitally important, but perhaps even more vital is the sacred space between the two.

In the Jewish world, this space is dominated by one word: community.

No matter how compassionate a government is, it could never create this community for us.

This community is created by the teaching of Jewish values and the living of those values in everyday life. One of those values is a sense of obligation toward other members of the community. This is not a theoretical or global value, it’s deeply local. 

It’s a value you see on the streets, in thrift shops, when people volunteer to clean the sidewalks, in warehouses that feed the needy on Shabbat, and, yes, even in weddings in schoolyards. 

It’s a value that is dependent not on government, but on character.

No matter who wins on Nov. 6, that truth will endure. 


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com

Israel features prominently in final debate


The U.S.-Israel alliance and the need to keep Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon were major themes in the final presidential debate.

Both President Obama and Mitt Romney said Monday during their foreign policy debate that they would stand with Israel in an attack by Iran.

“Israel is a true friend,” Obama said when debate moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS News asked the candidates whether they would see an attack on Israel as an attack on the United States. “It is our greatest ally in the region. And if Israel is attacked, America will stand with Israel.”

Romney, the Republican hopeful, concurred.

“I want to underscore the same point the president made, which is that if I'm president of the United States, when I'm president of the United States, we will stand with Israel,” Romney said at the debate at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla. “And if Israel is attacked, we have their back, not just diplomatically, not just culturally, but militarily.”

Along with Iran, China, Afghanistan, Syria and Pakistan, Israel was among the most mentioned countries at the debate.

Obama, who has faced attacks from Romney on his approach to Israel, was the first to mention the Jewish state when he outlined at the beginning of the debate how he was dealing with the unrest roiling the Middle East.

“It is absolutely true that we cannot just beat these challenges militarily,” Obama said, “and so what I've done throughout my presidency and will continue to do is, No. 1, make sure that these countries are supporting our counterterrorism efforts; No. 2, make sure that they are standing by our interests in Israel's security, because it is a true friend and our greatest ally in the region.”

Romney later accused Obama of distancing the United States from Israel.

“I think the tension that existed between Israel and the United States was very unfortunate,” Romney said in arguing that he would better stand by U.S. allies. 

Obama countered that during his presidency, military and intelligence cooperation with Israel was “unprecedented.”

Israel returned as a topic in one of the debate's most heated exchanges when Romney reminded Obama that he had not visited the country during a 2009 Middle East tour.

“By the way, you skipped Israel, our closest friend in the region, but you went to the other nations,” Romney said. “And by the way, they noticed that you skipped Israel.”

Obama responded by first noting that he had visited Israel and U.S. troops abroad as a candidate — a reference to criticism of Romney for not visiting troops during his campaign travels abroad. He also attacked Romney for organizing a fundraiser during his own Israel trip in July.

“And when I went to Israel as a candidate, I didn't take donors, I didn't attend fundraisers, I went to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum there, to remind myself the — the nature of evil and why our bond with Israel will be unbreakable,” Obama said.

“And then I went down to the border towns of Sderot, which had experienced missiles raining down from Hamas. And I saw families there who showed me where missiles had come down near their children's bedrooms, and I was reminded of — of what that would mean if those were my kids, which is why, as president, we funded an Iron Dome program to stop those missiles.”

Obama, Romney clash over foreign policy in last debate


President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney clashed over U.S. military strength and how to deal with crises in the Middle East in a third and final debate on Monday as polls showed them in deadlock two weeks before the Nov. 6 election.

With one last chance for both men to appeal to millions of voters watching on television, Obama was the aggressor from the start. He criticized the Republican on his proposals on the Middle East, mocking his calls for more ships in the U.S. military and saying Romney wants to bring the United States back to a long-abandoned Cold War stance.

Obama had a biting response when Romney said he would increase the number of ships built by the U.S. Navy, saying the United States should typically have 300 and only had 285.

“Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets,” said Obama.

Obama also said the Republican presidential candidate, by once declaring Russia a “geopolitical foe” of the United States, was seeking to turn back the clock.

“The Cold War has been over for 20 years,” Obama said, turning to Romney as they sat at a table before moderator Bob Schieffer. “When it comes to your foreign policy, you seem to want to import the foreign policies of the 1980s.”

Romney, wanting to make no mistakes that could blunt his recent surge in the polls, said Obama's policies toward the Middle East and North Africa were not stopping a resurgence of the threat from al Qaeda in the region.

“Attacking me is not an agenda,” said Romney. “Attacking me is not how we deal with the challenges of the Middle East.”

The two candidates agreed that the United States should defend Israel if Iran attacked the key U.S. ally in the Middle East, but Romney said he would tighten sanctions that are already affecting the Iranian economy.

The Republican, whose central theme throughout the campaign has been a promise to rebuild the weak U.S. economy, repeatedly turned the discussion back to economic matters, saying U.S. national security depended on a strong economy.

But Obama fired back that Romney's economic plan was based on tax cuts that had not had their desired effect in the past. Romney would not be able to balance the budget and increase military spending with such a plan, he said.

“The math simply does not add up,” he said.

'BACKBONE' ON RUSSIA

On Russia, Romney criticized Obama for an open-microphone comment he made to then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that he would have more “flexibility” after America's election.

Instead of showing Russian President Vladimir Putin more flexibility, Romney said, “I'll give him more backbone.”

The two candidates were tied at 46 percent each in the Reuters/Ipsos online daily tracking poll. Other surveys show a similar picture.

Obama came to Boca Raton with the advantage of having led U.S. national security and foreign affairs for the past 3 1/2 years. He gets credit for ending the Iraq war and the killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in 2011.

But Romney had many opportunities to steer the conversation back toward the weak U.S. economy, a topic on which voters see him as more credible.

Obama, Romney meet for final debate as race tightens


President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney face off in front of the cameras for a final time on Monday as opinion polls show their battle for the White House has tightened to a dead heat.

With 15 days to go until the Nov. 6 election, the two candidates turn to foreign policy for their third and last debate, which starts at 6 p.m PST.

The stakes are high, as the two candidates are tied at 46 percent each in the Reuters/Ipsos online daily tracking poll.

The debate will likely be the last time either candidate will be able to directly appeal to millions of voters – especially the roughly 20 pct who have yet to make up their minds or who could still switch their support.

Obama comes to this debate with several advantages. As sitting president, he has been deeply involved with national security and foreign affairs for the past three-and-a-half years. He can point to a number of successes on his watch, from the end of the Iraq war to the killing of Osama bin Laden.

But Romney will have many chances to steer the conversation back toward the sluggish U.S. economy, a topic on which voters see him as more credible. He will also try to use unease about a nuclear Iran and turmoil in Libya to sow doubts about Obama's leadership at home and abroad.

Romney launched his candidacy with an accusation that Obama was not representing U.S. interests aggressively enough, but after a decade of war voters have little appetite for further entanglements abroad. After a clumsy overseas trip in July, Romney will have to demonstrate to voters that he could ably represent the United States on the world stage.

“What he needs to do is get through this third debate by showing a close familiarity with the issues and a demeanor in foreign policy that is not threatening,” said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University.

Presidential debates have not always been consequential, but this year they have had an impact.

Romney's strong performance in the first debate in Denver on Oct. 3 helped him recover from a series of stumbles and wiped out Obama's advantage in opinion polls.

Obama fared better in their second encounter on Oct. 16, but that has not helped him regain the lead.

The Obama campaign is now playing defense as it tries to limit Romney's gains in several of the battleground states that will decide the election.

Romney could have a hard time winning the White House if he does not carry Ohio. A new Quinnipiac/CBS poll shows Obama leading by 5 percentage points in the Midwestern state, but another by Suffolk University shows the two candidates tied there.

LAST-CHANCE DEBATE

More than 60 million viewers watched each of their previous two debates, but the television audience this time could be smaller as it will air at the same time as high-profile baseball and football games.

Much of the exchange, which takes place at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida, will likely focus on the Middle East.

Campaigning in Canton, Ohio, on Monday, Vice President Joe Biden reminded voters of Obama's pledge to pull troops out of Afghanistan in the next two years and pointed out that Romney and his running mate Paul Ryan have made no such guarantees.

“They said, quote, it depends. Ladies and gentlemen, like everything with them, it depends,” Biden said. “It depends on what day you find these guys.”

At their second debate last week, the two presidential candidates clashed bitterly over Libya, a preview of what is to come on Monday evening. They argued over Obama's handling of the attack last month on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi in which Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed.

The Obama administration first labeled the incident a spontaneous reaction to a video made in the United States that lampooned the Prophet Mohammad. Later, it said it was a terrorist assault on the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

This shifting account, and the fact that Obama went on a campaign trip the day after the attack, has given Romney ammunition to use at Monday's debate.

“The statements were either misleading by intention or they were misleading by accident. Either way, though, he's got to get to the bottom of this,” Romney adviser Dan Senor said on NBC's “Today” show.

Obama and his allies charge that Romney exploited the Benghazi attack for political points while officials were still accounting for the wellbeing of U.S. diplomats.

Regarding foreign policy overall, Obama's allies accuse Romney of relying on generalities and platitudes.

“It is astonishing that Romney has run for president for six years and never once bothered to put forward a plan to end the war in Afghanistan, for example, or to formulate a policy to go after al Qaeda,” U.S. Senator John Kerry, the Democrats' 2004 presidential nominee, wrote in a memo released by the Obama campaign on Monday.

Romney has promised to tighten the screws over Iran's nuclear program and accused Obama of “leading from behind” as Syria's civil war expands. He also has faulted Obama for setting up a politically timed exit from the unpopular Afghanistan war, and accused him of failing to support Israel, an important ally in the Middle East.

The Republican challenger is likely to bring up a New York Times report from Saturday that said the United States and Iran had agreed in principle to hold bilateral negotiations to halt what Washington and its allies say is a plan by Tehran to develop nuclear weapons.

The 90-minute debate, moderated by Bob Schieffer of CBS, will be divided into six segments: America's role in the world; the war in Afghanistan; Israel and Iran; the changing Middle East; terrorism; and China's rise.

Netanyahu may dissolve parliament in mid-October, official says


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will decide before parliament reconvenes on October 15 on whether to seek a snap election, a government official said on Friday.

Citing growing friction among Netanyahu's allies, including disputes with Defence Minister Ehud Barak, Israeli media has said elections might be held in February, eight months ahead of schedule.

The official, who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said Netanyahu would make a decision before the middle of the month on whether to dissolve the reconvened parliament or get ministers to agree to austerity measures for next year's budget.

“If it's possible to agree to another responsible budget he (Netanyahu) prefers that. But if due to the political situation this proves not to be feasible, then he will choose an early election,” the official said.

Netanyahu heads the right-wing Likud party and presides over a five-party coalition government, which controls 66 seats in the 120-seat parliament.

Slower-than-expected economic growth means the government will have to tighten its belt in the 2013 budget and many coalition allies appear reluctant to sign up to austerity measures just months before elections are due.

Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz said last month that next year's budget would need 14 billion shekels ($3.6 billion) worth of cuts in order to reach a deficit target equal to three percent of gross domestic produce.

If no budget is approved for next year, spending controls immediately kick in to keep state finances steady until a new government is ready to act.

Netanyahu's ultra-Orthodox religious parties have been hesitant to agree to proposed cuts and Barak has also balked at demands to rein in defence spending.

Opinion polls have suggested Likud will come out on top of a national ballot, giving Netanyahu a renewed mandate to tackle what he has described as the most important challenge facing Israel – the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran.

However, the same polls have indicated that Barak's own small group, the Independence Party, might struggle to regain any seats in the next Knesset.

Relations between Netanyahu and Barak, long-time allies since serving together in the Israeli military, have frayed over the prime minister's efforts to push Washington to set a limit for Iranian nuclear development.

Writing by Allyn Fisher-Ilan

Netanyahu-Barak spat stokes early Israel vote talk


Friction between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak over relations with the United States fuelled talk on Wednesday of an early Israeli election.

Ministers said the quarrel, Barak's resistance to Defense cuts in coalition budget talks and his dovish comments on peace efforts with the Palestinians were signs of a fraying alliance with Netanyahu and a national ballot as early as February.

“It looks like the disputes herald an election,” Vice Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon said on Army Radio.

Allies in the governing coalition and commando comrades decades ago in the Israeli military, the two leaders have largely presented a united front when it comes to dealing with what they see as an Iranian drive to obtain a nuclear bomb.

But now that Netanyahu has hinted heavily in a U.N. speech last week that an Israeli strike against Iran is not imminent, the infighting between the right-wing Likud leader and Barak, head of the small centrist Atzmaut party, has begun in earnest.

In a report on Tuesday, Israel's Channel 2 television quoted Netanyahu as telling his finance minister: “Do you know what Barak has done on diplomatic matters? He went to the United States to stir up the argument between us and (President Barack) Obama and come across as a moderate savior.”

At the centre of the controversy is a visit Barak paid last month to the United States – he has travelled there frequently to meet Defense officials as the crisis with Iran intensified.

On that trip, Barak made a rare detour to Chicago and met privately on September 20 with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a former close aide to Obama. News of the meeting was leaked to Israeli media.

Their talks raised speculation in Israel that Barak was trying to ease strains between the prime minister and the Democratic president and assure Obama that Netanyahu would not do anything that could be construed as support for his Republican challenger Mitt Romney.

DOVISH POSITIONS

Likud cabinet minister Yisrael Katz accused Barak of undermining Netanyahu by espousing his own positions, which on Israeli-Palestinian peace have been more dovish than the prime minister's, in his meetings in the United States.

Katz, interviewed on Israel Radio, would not provide more details. Netanyahu's office declined to comment on the prime minister's reported criticism of Barak.

Accentuating differences with Netanyahu, Barak last month called for a unilateral withdrawal from most of the West Bank if peace efforts with the Palestinians remained stalled.

Barak's proposal was widely seen as a bid to stake out new political ground before a possible election, which Netanyahu could opt to call in an attempt to build new alliances rather than battle with his current coalition partners over the budget.

Barak has resisted Treasury calls to rein in Defense spending and impose other austerity measures. Other parties in the coalition have also balked at cuts in spending that could affect core constituencies.

Katz predicted that if agreement on a budget was out of reach “the elections will take place in the beginning of the year”, saying mid-February would be a logical date. By law a ballot must be held no later than about year from now.

Interior Minister Eli Yishai of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, has forecast an election in January or February, citing budget disagreements.

An opinion poll in the Haaretz daily last week predicted Netanyahu's Likud party would win the most votes in a new election, capturing 27 seats in the 120-member parliament – the number it currently holds – and be well placed to put together a governing coalition.

Hitting back at Likud criticism, Barak's office said in a statement that he acted during his U.S. visit in line with government policy and had aimed to “reduce tensions and bolster American support for Israel's security and positions”.

In an apparent swipe at Netanyahu, who warmly hosted Romney during a visit to Israel in July, a source close to Barak said U.S. backing must not be jeopardized by “actions portraying Israel as involved with a particular side in American politics”.

Netanyahu has denied playing favorites in the presidential race.

Earlier this month, he dramatically ramped up pressure on Obama when he said the United States did not have a “moral right” to hold Israel back from taking action against Iran because Washington had not set its own limits on Tehran.

Obama's aides were angered that Netanyahu was trying to put pressure on the president in the midst of the U.S. election campaign, despite the risk to Obama of alienating pro-Israel voters in battleground states like Florida and Ohio.

Editing by Jon Boyle