Netanyahu’s strongman image boosts ratings, countering U.S. rift

Israeli voters' security concerns have boosted Benjamin Netanyahu's popularity in the past month, helping him to skirt criticism of a widened rift with the White House as he aims for a fourth election success.

With violence on the Lebanese border and worries about Iran's nuclear program high on voters' minds, the conservative leader's reputation for being strong on security helped to raise his approval rating to 51 percent from 46 percent in January.

The same monthly opinion poll, conducted on Sunday and published in the left-wing Haaretz daily, forecast Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party would win 25 of parliament's 120 seats in the March 17 election against 23 for the center Zionist Union. Last month it gave Likud 22 seats and Zionist Union 23.

The latest figures showed him on course to build a governing coalition of parties from the right, far-right and Orthodox Jewish blocs and return to power for a fourth term, solidifying his position as Israel's longest-serving prime minister since David Ben-Gurion.

“It seems Netanyahu has the best chances,” said Gideon Rahat, a political scientist at Hebrew University.

The poll results will come as a surprise to some: Netanyahu has been fending off criticism at home and abroad over his decision to accept an invitation from John Boehner, the Republican speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, to address Congress on Iran's nuclear program two weeks before the Israeli election.

Many have seen Netanyahu's visit, announced without first consulting the White House, as an insult to U.S. President Barack Obama, with whom he has always had a testy relationship.

Yet opinion polls show that Netanyahu is perceived by Israelis as having the steadier hand when it comes to keeping them safe, and he has been peddling that message. A current Likud TV ad shows him ringing the doorbell of parents about to go out for the evening.

“You asked for a babysitter? You got a Bibi-sitter,” he says, using his nickname.

Several other polls last week presented similar figures to those published in Haaretz on Sunday.

It still remains possible that the Zionist Union could secure more seats than Likud come the election. But with the arithmetic suggesting that party would struggle to cobble together a working coalition, Netanyahu remains more likely to be the man Israeli President Reuven Rivlin asks to form a government.


Israeli newspapers moved their focus recently from security matters to allegations – denied by Netanyahu's lawyers – that his wife Sara pocketed the deposits from recycled bottles purchased for their official residence with state funds.

While tricky for Netanyahu, the whiff of scandal has served to shift attention away from issues like the high cost of living and soaring housing prices – the Zionist Union's main campaigning issues.

He may however soon have a more difficult hurdle to negotiate: Israel's state comptroller is to release a report on Feb. 17 into alleged excessive expenditures at Netanyahu's residences.

The investigation, prompted by complaints about which the comptroller has declined to give further details, will detail expenditures at the prime minister's three residences on items such as food, furniture, clothing, accommodation and staff, and decide whether public funds were misused.

And while the polls are comforting for Netanyahu for now, they have been off the mark in the past. In 2013 they failed to predict a second-place finish for Yesh Atid, then a new centrist party that campaigned on economic issues.

Obama victory opens window for negotiation with Iran

The re-election of Barack Obama may open an opportunity for new negotiations with Iran on its nuclear program as sanctions pile economic pressure on its theocratic leaders.

Having so far resisted those in the United States, and Israel, who have pushed for military action against Iran, and now with no more elections to fight, the president appears free to pursue a diplomatic settlement while wielding the threat of yet heavier commercial penalties if Tehran does not bend.

“Obama has prepared the ground very carefully and has the option of trying to cut some kind of a deal on the nuclear issue and that's worth a lot to him,” said Gary Sick, an Iran expert and former U.S. national security official.

Last month, the White House said the option of bilateral talks with Iran, with whom Washington has not had diplomatic relations for three decades, was under consideration.

The Western powers, and Israel, accuse Iran of secretly preparing to build nuclear weapons while working on a program which Tehran insists is purely designed for civil purposes.

Tehran's reaction to Obama's re-election was predictably critical and warned that Washington should not expect to establish a new relationship with Tehran quickly: “After all this pressure and crimes against the people of Iran, relations with America cannot be possible overnight and Americans should not think they can hold our nation to ransom by coming to the negotiating table,” judiciary head Sadeq Larijani said.

But there are indications Iran's leadership views Obama's continued presence as preferable to the arrival of Romney, who some saw as more likely to cooperate with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on a possible military strike on Iran.

“Obama's people are a known quantity. Iran's leaders know Obama has held the Israelis back from launching a military attack,” said Scott Lucas of the EA Worldview news website which specializes in covering Iran. “They didn't know what they were getting with Romney and they were a little fearful.”

In a revealing speech in Tehran last week, Iran's former envoy to Paris and the United Nations, Sadeq Kharrazi, praised Obama for his efforts in “reducing tensions between Islam and the West” and trying to “move closer to Iran”.


Obama started his presidency in 2009 with diplomatic overtures to Tehran but successive rounds of sanctions imposed by Washington and the European Union have cut Iranian oil revenues and sharpened quarrels between factions.

“Obama was a tough president for Iran's hardliners, because he exposed them as the problem. His … efforts to engage Iran accentuated Tehran's internal divisions, and created greater international unity,” said Karim Sadjadpour, associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington

His administration now has a window to pursue talks with Iran, although campaigning for next year's Iranian presidential election could close that down in a few months time.

Israel, too, appears less poised to strike and sees talks between its main ally and Iran as possible:

“Obama, certainly in the short term, will be much more effective, because he already has a formulated policy,” Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon told Israeli television. “There could be direct negotiations with Iran.”

Talks are expected to resume between Iran and the P5+1 group – the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany – in November or December after the process stalled in June and there have been signs that Iran's most powerful figure, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, may be ready to move forward.

Negotiations have focused on conditions under which Iran might hold back its enrichment of uranium.

“The chances of getting negotiations up and running are much better with Obama and he's likely to go for that,” said one Western diplomat based in Tehran. “The clock is ticking and we need to get it sorted. If the Iranians are looking for a way to climb down, this is a good chance.”

Nonetheless, there is deep mistrust all round. Washington and its allies accuse Iranian negotiators of playing for time to meet further their program and strengthen their position. Iran has accused the West of double standards by negotiating while imposing further punitive measures on it.

“In the past Iran has made steps towards rapprochement and the Americans have retaliated by increasing sanctions,” said Mohammad Marandi of Tehran University. “There is explicit anger over the attempts to wreck the economy and prevent imports of foodstuffs and medicine which hurts ordinary people.”

Many blame sanctions which have all but isolated Iran from the international banking system but they also point the finger at President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for failed economic policies. Some Iranians expressed relief that Obama secured a second term.

“We hate the policies of the U.S. and Israel, but Obama's policies are wiser. The only chance we have for the situation not to get worse was an Obama victory,” said Tehran filmmaker Amin, one of several Iranians contacted by Reuters from Dubai.

Many had feared that under Romney the risk of being attacked would have risen and that Washington would have intervened in the Middle East as it did under Obama's Republican predecessor George W. Bush. Among them was 32-year-old dissident journalist Mira: “Iranians,” she said, “Believe war would be destructive and would catapult the region two or three decades back.”

Additional reporting by Yeganeh Torbati in Dubai and Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Writing by Marcus George; Editing by Alastair Macdonald

Obama outreach launching with phone call

The Obama re-election campaign is launching its outreach to Jews with a mass conference call.

Top campaign officials will address listeners in the call, which is scheduled for Tuesday afternoon, a top Jewish outreach official told JTA.

Jewish supporters will be alerted to the call’s details Monday afternoon, the official said.

The call is taking place now to arm Obama supporters with arguments ahead of the Jewish High Holidays, the official said.

Also in the works is a dedicated page on the Obama for America website, one of the first to be launched to a Democratic constituency, which should be rolled out in the next few days.

Giffords votes in House; colleague says preparations readying for re-election run

Following her dramatic return to Congress for the first time since she was shot, U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords announced that she would run for re-election in 2012.

Giffords (D-Ariz.) made the announcement Tuesday morning on “The Early Show.” The CBS program promptly tweeted the news.

The announcement that Giffords, the first Jewish women elected to statewide office in Arizona, would be seeking her fourth term in Congress came the morning after she surprised her colleagues in the House of Representatives by appearing on the House floor to vote for the debt ceiling package, which passed the $2.5 trillion deal. She received a standing ovation from the chamber, creating a brief moment of unity after weeks of fractious budget debates.

“The Capitol looks beautiful and I am honored to be at work tonight,” Giffords said in a tweet before appearing in the chamber, the first tweet made in the first person since she was shot Jan. 8 in an assault that killed six people while she met constituents at a strip mall in her congressional district in Tucson, Ariz.

Giffords walked onto the House floor accompanied by her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, and her closest friend in Congress, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), to building applause from both sides of the aisle.

Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.), like Wasserman Schultz a close Jewish friend and a fundraiser for Giffords, rushed over to hug her.

“This is a day for the history books,” Wasserman Schultz said in a statement. “We saved our country from going into default, and my beloved friend and ever-optimistic colleague Rep. Gabrielle Giffords returned to the floor to cast her vote in favor of the future of our nation.”

Not for Hahn After All

Six prominent members of the Jewish community have sent a letter of protest to Mayor Jim Hahn, claiming Hahn’s re-election campaign used their names in endorsement advertisements without their permission.

The ad, titled “Our community leaders agree! Re-elect Mayor Jim Hahn,” ran in both the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles and The Jewish News. The Jewish Journal ad appears in this week’s paper. The letter of protest addresses Hahn directly, stating that, “In your first campaign for mayor, some of us did support you.[But] that was three years ago, and there was no follow-up call to re-solicit support for your current campaign.”

In response, Hahn campaign advisor Kam Kuwata provided the Journal with six undated signed statements by the same individuals giving the “Jim Hahn for Mayor 2005” campaign permission to use their names in endorsement lists of “Jewish community leaders for Hahn.”

The six who signed the letter are Rabbi Steven Weil, Dr. Irving Lebovics, Rabbi Avraham M. Weiner, Aaron B. Litenansky, and Walter Feinblum.

Kuwata said he could not say precisely when the forms were signed, only that it was after Hahn was first elected mayor in 2001. The form is on letterhead that specifies 2005 as the campaign in question. But Kuwata acknowledged some ambiguity on the issue, noting that the letters were obtained by Joe Klein, a Hahn supporter who has since died. Kuwata said he did not know when the letters were obtained. “In all candor, it’s a very difficult thing to trace,” said Kuwata.

“Some people date [endorsement permissions], some people do not,” Kuwata said. “It’s on the letterhead of ‘Hahn for Mayor 2005’ and I presume that everybody who signs that looks at what they’re signing.”

Kuwata said the endorsements could date back three years, which would be after Hahn was first elected, but before other candidates entered the campaign against Hahn. These challengers include two former state Assembly speakers-Bob Hertzberg, who is Jewish, and Antonio Villaraigosa, who has a history of drawing strong support among Jewish liberals. Three years ago would also pre-date the surfacing of corruption allegations against the Hahn administration.

The individuals who wrote the letter of protest implied that so much time had passed that Hahn’s campaign should have gone to the trouble of a follow-up communication to ensure their support had continued.

Kuwata disagreed: “If I give you permission to do X, you don’t ask me, ‘Do I still have your permission? Do I still have your permission?’ We don’t continually [do that].” He said that if they wanted their names removed, they could have called and requested it at any time.

Of the six, only Rabbi Avraham Weiner’s permission form included the caveat that he be contacted prior to the Hahn campaign’s use of his name.

The letter to Hahn ends with a request to remove the signers’ names from future advertisements. Kuwata confirmed that the Hahn campaign would be “happy” to comply.


Gay Marriage: A Real Threat?


The intersection of religion and politics became a talk show hit after Nov. 2, when the religious right played a huge, and perhaps pivotal, role in the re-election of President Bush.

Jews are not of one mind about the new focus on faith in politics, but many in the large non-Orthodox majority remain uncomfortable with that trend and are downright scared of new threats to the church-state wall posed by the religious conservatives.

And many are troubled by the blatant manipulation of the “values agenda” by the consultants, media gurus and party strategists who increasingly dominate American politics.

That cynical use of religion was shockingly evident in the gay marriage debate that was a huge factor in the 2004 election outcome.

At least in part, the gay marriage frenzy was ignited by politicians cynically exploiting the issue, not by the perception of any genuine threat. And, in the process, the attack-dog pols gave backhanded legitimacy to raw bigotry — something that is always dangerous to Jews, even when they are not the direct targets.

The recent study for Facts and Trends, a publication of the Southern Baptist Convention, surveyed Protestant ministers nationwide and shed some light on the gay marriage issue. The goal was to determine what the clergy saw as the “greatest threats to families in their communities.”

Some 43 percent of the pastors identified the biggest threat as divorce — an issue that has gotten almost no attention from the political defenders of the family, possibly because so many of them have experienced divorce firsthand.

In second place was “negative influences from the media”; “materialism” scored third.

The list goes on and on, with threats ranging from pornography to the expenses of child care. “Sexual predators or sexual abuse,” issues frequently raised by anti-gay marriage crusaders, was identified as a major threat by only 1 percent of the pastors.

And gay marriage? It wasn’t even on the chart. Apparently pastors across the country do not see this as even a minor danger in their own communities.

The researchers had an answer; the survey, they said, was conducted before the Massachusetts Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in that state in February.

But evangelical political groups have been raging against gay marriage as a direct threat to the family for several years. The survey shows that despite that effort, the issue did not resonate with Christian clergy, who had a much more realistic view of the threats in their communities.

But then, along came the consultants and strategists who knew a winning issue when they saw one.

After the Massachusetts court decision, Republican politicians, aided by conservative Christian interest groups, seized on the issue as a gift from the judicial gods. They used it effectively to divert attention from a host of obvious threats to the nation, many of which lawmakers of both parties bore significant responsibility for — including the mushrooming budget deficit, the shaky economy, the war in Iraq and the homeland security mess.

Morality, they raged, was under siege by “activist judges”; the goal, many proclaimed, was nothing short of the destruction of the American family, not equal rights for gays and lesbians.

While gay marriage is an appropriate topic for serious debate, there was no basis for those exaggerated claims, as the Protestant pastors understood — but still, whipped to an election-year froth, they resonated with a huge number of Americans eager for an enemy they could identify, not incomprehensible economic forces or the elusive Osama bin Laden.

Ballot initiatives banning gay marriage were rushed onto the ballots in 11 states; all passed, some by overwhelming margins, and that outpouring is credited with helping boost the GOP presidential ticket and congressional candidates across the country.

Politicians were acting on one of the oldest axioms in American democracy: when your political situation gets dicey, you can’t go wrong drumming up fear and fury aimed at some unpopular group. Immigrants, Catholics and Jews have all served as targets in the past; now it was the gays’ turn.

The dangers to the Jewish community — which supports same-sex marriage and civil unions more than almost any other community but also includes significant dissenting voices — should be obvious.

Every time politicians resort to open scapegoating, they legitimize the use of hatred in the political arena. It’s even worse when their efforts pay big political dividends, as they did in 2004 — a lesson that won’t be lost on self-serving politicians in the next election cycle.

Right now, it’s gays and lesbians who are the target. But Jews can never be sure the stain of hatred won’t target our community, as well.

The Anti-Defamation League, among others, has always operated on the premise that bigotry, while ever-present in our world, can never be tolerated in public expression. Yet, that is what happened in the long election campaign.

Ask the pastors. Gay marriage is far from the biggest threat facing American families. The politicians who portrayed it as such are playing a dangerous game that can only undercut the basic protections that all minorities — including Jews — depend on in a pluralistic America.


Is It Safe?

Former New York City Mayor Ed Koch famously used to greet fellow citizens with an enthusiastic handshake, shouting out, "How’m I doing?"

Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn, now into his third year in office and facing what is shaping up as a tough re-election bid, is not that kind of pol. He is friendly enough, but otherwise aloof and detached. When I’ve seen him at events, banquets and the like, he seems to prefer going only lightly noticed, a strange trait for the mayor of the second-largest city in the most populous state of the most powerful country on earth. Los Angeles, City of the Stars, has a mayor who shrugs off the spotlight.

Starting this week, it seems, he will have even more reason for discomfort. All week, rumors swirled that former Assembly Speaker Robert Hertzberg will announce his candidacy for the mayor’s office. I called Hertzberg on Wednesday as we were going to press, and asked if the rumors were true. He said he’s making no announcements until next week, probably Wednesday.

Charismatic and well-known in Westside political circles and in the San Fernando Valley, Hertzberg, a Democrat, has been an adviser to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. If Hertzberg runs and the popular Republican governor stumps for him, swing voters will start swinging and the free publicity will help neutralize Hahn’s considerable campaign war chest. City Councilman Bernard Parks — the former chief of police, whose ouster Hahn publicly sought — is also in the race, and is expected to siphon votes out of Hahn’s black base. State Sen. Richard Alarcón (D-Van Nuys) will cut into Latino support. The brutal competition could chew up the coalition of black and Valley suburbanite voters who put Hahn in office.

"Conventional wisdom says multiple candidates will split the anti-Hahn vote, ensuring at least a runoff," Sherry Bebitch Jaffe wrote in The Los Angeles Times. "But if Hahn’s base is nibbled away, he could find himself below the top two finishers."

What’s worse, the ballot is filling up as charges of untoward ethical practices over at the Airport Commission and the defection of top aides becloud the mayor’s administration and create the appearance, if not of impropriety, then certainly of fecklessness.

So it was no surprise when Hahn’s office called me to set up a private breakfast meeting with the mayor.

"That’s smart," a caustic observer of the downtown scene told me when I mentioned My Breakfast With Jim. "He needs friends."

We met a couple of weeks ago in a corner booth at the Denny’s on Sunset Boulevard near the 101.

Hahn takes hits — such as those I just leveled — for not being a more potent presence as mayor. But it seems that Hahn has done at least two muy macho things in his first term. He stood up to Valley secession. True, he could have opposed the movement more quickly and boldly — and if it succeeded, it’s not as if its supporters would be able to vote for him anyway — but the move alienated many of the white Valleyites who helped elect him.

He also came out against a second term for then-Police Chief Bernard Parks, working to insert William Bratton as the top cop. His popularity among his crucial black supporters plummeted after that.

"I knew going in this would not sit well with the political base that had supported me throughout my political career," he told me, "but on the other hand I realized I had gotten to this place where I was the chief executive officer of the city, and I had to do what needed to be done. People elected me to make tough decisions, and it was clear to me that we had to make a change of direction, and we had to make it no matter what the cost to me, or we risked having a police department continue to slide and shrink and continue to see crime go up."

Hahn is clearly proud of Bratton’s accomplishments, reducing the homicide rate 20 percent in the past year and adding 400 officers to the LAPD.

In fact, if Hahn were looking for his own Koch-like catchphrase, he might want to co-opt Lawrence Olivier’s question to Dustin Hoffman in "Marathon Man": "Is it safe?"

As we spoke, it became clear that his re-election campaign will present Hahn as the answer to that question, that security is job one for the mayor.

"We’re a lot safer than we were prior to Sept. 11," he said.

He pointed to coordinated security exercises and the purchase of Raytheon equipment that allows emergency responders to communicate with each other effectively in the field as examples of his work toward preparedness. He said he’d like to see the Bush administration carry through on its promise to send federal money for such measures to Los Angeles. Every time the Department of Homeland Security declares an orange alert, the city bleeds an extra $500,000 per day in preparedness expenses.

"Our airport has stayed at yellow-orange," Hahn said. "Thirty-five percent of all container cargo in America comes in through the Port of Los Angeles, and port security is way behind airports. We’re in a war against terrorism. This isn’t a public works project, it isn’t a pork barrel project, we should be trying to protect [ourselves from] the greatest threat."

The city has only received a fraction of the $12.4 million made available to it as part of the Urban Area Security Initiative.

"We’ve received $3 million in actual checks. We’re still almost getting as much as Houston," Hahn said, archly. "We don’t have leverage, we’re just trying to make our case."

The redesign of Los Angeles International Airport is another area that Hahn sees, or at least is selling, as primarily a security concern. The costly and controversial plans for expansion are, he said, a matter of urgent public safety.

"There’s a lot of people who are in the mindset of you can’t make it 100 percent safe, so why try to redesign the whole thing?" he said. "I’m trying to assess what the biggest threat is, and to my mind it’s the vehicle bomb. And we’re trying to design something that protects the central terminal area where all the gates are, which means taking private vehicles out."

Hahn said he would back any federal initiative that would make extra funds available for high-probability terror targets such as synagogues and Jewish institutions.

"I would be very supportive of that," he said.

As for what Bratton has called "domestic terrorism," the violence that wracks many neighborhoods in the city, Hahn said he wants to see the murder rate reduced even more. He supports peeling officers off other details to place them in areas of high gang activity, and he supports Sheriff Lee Baca’s proposal for a 1/2 cent sales tax increase on the November ballot that will fund (by some estimates) an additional 1,200 LAPD officers.

Hahn took office in the midst of fiscal crisis at every level of government, but decided that the conventional wisdom, which blames crime on poverty and a poor economy, is wrong.

"It’s exactly the opposite," he said. "Bratton proved this to me. New York’s economy was in shambles, but they concentrated on making the city safer. As they made the city safer, the economy improved. People wanted to invest, they wanted to come in to New York City."

The mayor has worked to increase affordable housing and for other economic gains, but his primary focus, he said, "is freedom from fear. If we can actually achieve that in neighborhoods that have been terrorized by fear, that’s better than a new library or park or swimming pool. I would like to get as far as we can toward that goal of making neighborhoods in this city that have been plagued by crime for years free from that. We make the city safer and other things start happening, but first things first."

The mayor’s critics fault him for not bringing back more money from Washington for homeland security funding; for not being more outspoken on issues ranging from the grocery workers strike to public transportation to education. The mayor’s actual power in these areas varies, but, say his critics, Hahn is not taking advantage of the bully pulpit his office offers.

"Public safety is really important," said one such critic, L.A. City Councilman Jack Weiss. "It’s the most important function of local government, but the other part of the job ought to be vision and imagination and energy."

Whether Angelenos want a war mayor to match our self-described war president is an open question. But Hahn is clearly betting that hunkering down and focusing on crime and security is the way to keep the city — and his job — safe.

Kerry’s Lead Alters GOP Jewish Strategy

More and more, it looks as though the precipitous plunge of former Vermont governor Howard Dean will deny the Republicans what they wanted most this year: a liberal Democratic patsy for President Bush to trounce on Nov. 2.

The rise of Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) as the Democratic front-runner, with Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) as a respectable second, will alter a lot of plans in Bush-Cheney re-election headquarters, and that includes plans for harvesting Jewish votes. Kerry’s rise means an even more targeted Jewish GOP strategy, combined with an ongoing effort to pry Jewish campaign contributors loose from the Democrats.

It’s important to note at the outset that the GOP was never planning to mount an all-out offensive to win Jewish votes nationwide for the simple reason that with relatively few Jewish votes in play, the results would not justify the costs.

Almost every analyst agrees that Bush, benefiting from his unusually close relations with the current Israeli government and his leadership in the war on terror, will fare much better among Jewish voters than he did in 2000, when he won a paltry 19 percent of the vote. But almost no analyst, including top GOP strategists, believes he has a chance to do much better than 30-35 percent.

That’s a significant increase, with the potential to have a critical impact in a handful of states. But it’s hardly the political revolution that some pundits have predicted.

Many Republicans believe Kerry will cut into those predicted gains. Kerry, with a solidly pro-Israel record in the Senate, is expected to bring back to the Democrats some Jewish swing voters who may have been drifting to the GOP. That drift, most analysts say, would have been the greatest if Howard Dean had been the Democratic front-runner.

Dean quickly retreated from his September demand for a more balanced U.S. approach to the Middle East, but the damage was done. Such statements made him a prime target of the Jewish right, and his positions gave some middle-of-the-road Jews who put Israel high on their list of political priorities the jitters.

Kerry has not been a pro-Israel leader, but he has voted consistently for the positions advocated by the pro-Israel lobby. In addition, he has the aura of experience that leads many Jews in the political center to believe he won’t try to shake up U.S. policy in the region.

The dramatic change in the Democratic race will reinforce this year’s Jewish-GOP strategy, which will be a limited and very focused one.

Many Jews are concentrated in states where the president is unlikely to run well, and where even a significant Jewish shift is unlikely to make any real difference. That includes Maryland, New York and possibly California.

In a few other states, Bush is expected to do well in what could be very close votes — and big Jewish populations there are very much in play and very much desired by the Republicans. Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio are the states most frequently cited by GOP strategists.

The plan is obvious: focus on Jewish voters in those few swing states where the Jewish vote could make a real difference. In the rest, rely simply on cadres of Jewish Republicans and groups such as the Republican Jewish Coalition, as well as Bush’s reputation as a friend and supporter of Ariel Sharon, to produce gratifying but modest gains.

The GOP approach to Jewish voters in those targeted states will be equally narrow. It will start and end with Israel and terrorism. The president will be portrayed as the best friend Israel ever had in the White House and the leader most capable of waging a sustained, effective war against terrorism.

Republicans understand that mainstream Jews are simply not going to line up with them on domestic issues, especially the anti-government, anti-social welfare and faith-based approaches that the Bush campaign will have to ratchet up to please its conservative base.

At the same time, party activists say they will intensify their ongoing effort to pry more Jewish campaign donors from the Democrats. This is a win-win proposition for the GOP. The extra money is nice for the party, but even nicer is denying it to the Democrats, who are much more dependent on Jewish givers.

The Republicans understand the growing gap within the Jewish community, with community leaders and big political givers generally more conservative than the overall Jewish population. That represents a universe of opportunity for the GOP, and party strategists are already exploiting it.

The Jewish vote, itself, is changing much more slowly. The Republicans see a positive trend in their direction, but it will be years before they can even hope for Jewish majorities in most elections. Major impediments remain to their recruitment of Jews, starting with the GOP love affair with the Christian right.

That relationship may win the approval of Orthodox activists, but polls continue to show most American Jews fear the religious right and see it as a political adversary, not an ally.

How Will Saddam’s Capture Affect Vote?

What does the capture of Saddam Hussein mean for Jewish
voters in 2004? Will it shift the preferences of Jewish Democrats as they weigh
the party’s presidential contenders? Will it push Jewish
voters closer to supporting President Bush for re-election?

The heartfelt connection that most American Jews feel for
the State of Israel overlaps with the broadly progressive, Democratic loyalties
that characterize most (though of course not all) American Jewish voters to
create a volatile mixture of instincts when foreign policy comes into play. The
spectrum runs from Jews who back Bush because of his staunchly pro-Israel
policy, to those who support Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman’s Democratic
version of pro-Israel politics, to those who support Howard Dean’s blistering
critique of Bush’s foreign policy. And many Jewish voters at this stage are
trying to decide among their choices.

From the perspective of those who care deeply about Israel,
the Iraq War becomes quite complicated. While there was little credible
evidence that Iraq posed a threat to the security of a United States more
immediately threatened by Osama bin Ladin, Saddam may have been a more serious,
direct threat to Israel.Â

He was in a position to define himself as the Arab world’s
leading edge against Israel. He had launched missiles into Israel during the
first Gulf War, and after his capture, information emerged that Israel had
trained commandos to attempt to assassinate him.

The problem for Israel is that while anything might be
better than keeping Saddam in power, removing his regime will not be enough to
guarantee Israel’s security. Unless the Bush administration shows greater
wisdom than it has so far in administering Iraq, who knows what kind of regime
will emerge and whether it will be even more hostile to Israel?

Placing Israel’s security in the hands of an American
administration that is blundering through its glorious experiment in
imperialism is hardly reassuring. But neither will Israelis and many American
Jews (and indeed most Americans) take comfort in the notion that there was no
value in removing Saddam from power.

So where does this tangle leave Jewish voters?

Some polls taken right after Saddam’s capture and
Lieberman’s harsh attack on Dean are showing a slight revival in Lieberman’s
fortunes, but it seems doubtful that he can emerge as the nominee of a party
whose active base wants a full-out assault on Bush. The most likely Democratic
candidates to win unstinting Jewish support are probably Gen. Wesley Clark and
Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt, but they must still make credible showings in the
upcoming party contests.

Dean continues to move ahead but has not closed the deal. He
will have little trouble winning the votes of the most liberal Jews, but moderate,
middle-of-the-road Jewish Democrats may require considerable wooing on Middle
East issues. His early call for “balance” in the Middle East set off emotional
exchanges that finally ended with an eloquent letter from Dean to the
Anti-Defamation League outlining his pro-Israel views.

One of the interesting dynamics of the presidential
election, as the Washington Post’s Laura Blumenfeld noted in early December, is
that both Arab Americans and Jews have become slightly unmoored from their
traditional partisan leanings by the Iraq War. Many Jews have been gratified by
Bush’s strong support of Israel and believe that an America strong in world
affairs is good for Israel.

Many Arab Americans, a bloc of whom had voted for Bush in
2000 after he promised to be extremely sensitive to their civil liberties, have
been outraged by the USA Patriot Act and are ready to vote against Bush in
2004. If, however, Democrats try to win Arab American votes by softening
support for Israel, they will lose Jewish voters and perhaps win only a few
Arab Americans. But there may be an area of common ground between the two
groups, which is opposition to the violations of civil liberties in the USA
Patriot Act.

What does the Democratic nominee, whoever that may be, have
to do to hold the critical support of Jewish voters in light of Saddam’s

For those Jewish voters who are closely attuned to how
Israel viewed Saddam’s Iraq, it would be worth remembering that there can be
some good outcomes from even an ill-advised, dishonestly presented war. The
Bush administration’s harebrained “neo-cons” may have a ridiculously overblown
confidence in their ability to redraw the map of the Middle East around
American hegemony, but at least they factor Israel’s security into their

The Democratic nominee must go beyond supporting the peace
process, as valuable as that is, to concretely address Israel’s long-term and
short-term security needs. That candidate must also remember that one can
oppose the Bush administration’s foreign policy approach without having to become
its opposite.

The alternative to hard militaristic unilateralism is not
just soft diplomatic multilateralism but a firm, resolute, tough foreign policy
that builds on and cherishes historic alliances. Â

Raphael J. Sonenshein is a political science professor at California State University, Fullerton.