by Benyamin Korn
An anti-Israel resolution, coming up before the United Nations Security Council. A Democratic president in a quandary over what position to take. Cracks appearing in the Jewish community's traditional Democratic leanings, just as the campaign season heats up.
Try Jimmy Carter in the spring of 1980.
Carter's decision had fateful consequences for his reelection campaign. Obama's may, too.
On Saturday, March 1, 1980, Carter's ambassador at the United Nations, Donald McHenry, cast America's vote in favor of U.N. Security Council resolution 456. The text contained the familiar litany of absurd and one-sided charges against Israeli actions in what the resolution repeatedly called "the Arab territories occupied since 1967, including Jerusalem."
The inclusion of Jerusalem was the kicker. While the Carter administration had never accepted Israel's unification and annexation of Jerusalem in 1967, neither had the U.S. ever agreed with the Arab and U.N. position that the city should be considered "occupied Arab territory."
Jerusalem, which has been the capital of the Jewish people for some three thousand years and is the location of Judaism's holiest sites, is a hot-button issue for American Jews. Jewish leaders and congressional supporters of Israel vigorously denounced the administration's vote.
Carter's advisers belatedly remembered that the Florida primary was just one week away, with the New York primary to follow two weeks after. Challenger Ted Kennedy would now be well-positioned to compete for the sizeable Jewish vote in both states. By Monday night, in what the New York Times described as "an extraordinary statement," the White House announced that McHenry actually had been instructed to vote against the resolution. The mistake was due to "a failure of communication" between him and Washington, administration spokesmen claimed.
Israel's American supporters were not impressed. "Carter, You're the Mistake" read a sign at a protest rally outside Carter's reelection headquarters in Manhattan. Liberal Democrat Congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman declared that she did not believe Carter's explanation. Mayor Ed Koch, often a bellwether of American Jewish opinion, accused Carter of surrounding himself with an "anti-Israel 'gang of four.'" In the days leading up to the New York primary, Jewish protests intensified. "Jews Aroused at Fever Pitch As UN Goof Protests Escalate," a headline in the National Jewish Post & Opinion, out of Indianapolis, declared.
At that point, Senator Kennedy had lost most of the early primaries to Carter, and Kennedy's campaign seemed to be on its last legs. But the U.N. vote gave Kennedy's candidacy new life. With heavy Jewish support, Kennedy shellacked Carter in New York, 59% to 41%. The reinvigorated challenger fought Carter all the way to the convention floor, badly wounding the president along the way.
That was the beginning of American Jewry's abandonment of Carter, which culminated in November, when Carter lost, as nearly two-thirds of Jewish voters deserted him. The 40% of Jewish votes Carter received (Reagan won 40%, with John Anderson taking 20%) represented the lowest share of the Jewish vote won by any Democratic candidate since James Cox ran against Warren Harding in 1920.
Could Barack Obama be heading down the same road?
Like Carter, Obama's Israel policy during his first two years in office has been marked by intense, one-sided pressure on the Jewish State. His support amongst American Jews -- many of whom said earlier this year they were having "buyer's remorse" over having voted for him -- has clearly eroded. (Among Israelis, too -- in one poll last year, only 4% of Israelis approved of Obama's Mideast policies.) The president and his advisers belatedly undertook, and have sustained, a relentless "charm offensive" towards Jewish leaders and voters, saying nice things about Israel in public while keeping up intense pressure in private.
This strategy has helped to reduce, at least temporarily, the level of Jewish voter angst with Obama. The upcoming U.N. vote, however, is thrusting Obama's Israel problem back into the limelight. A vote in favor of the resolution, or a U.S. abstention that would permit the resolution to pass, would likely be seen as a return to last year's Obama policy on Israel. And that could well reignite a Jewish desertion of Obama comparable to 1980 -- which, in a similarly close 2012 election, could well be decided in the condominiums of Florida, the salons of Hollywood, the suburbs of Pennsylvania, the streets of New York, and the precincts of New Jersey.
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