Sunday, June 17, 2012

Israel’s an Election Issue … For Christians

by Jonathan S. Tobin

Jewish Democrats have been trying to sound two themes simultaneously this year. On the one hand they have been saying what they have repeated for the past few election cycles: that Israel is not a major issue for most Jewish voters and that the their party — and its presidential candidate — has nothing to worry about in the fall. Yet out of the other side of their mouths come equally fervent assertions claiming Barack Obama is Israel’s best friend ever to sit in the White House and that those who observed the endless fights he picked with the Jewish state during his first three years in office should not pay any attention to the man behind the curtain. While the claim about Obama’s status as Israel’s buddy is risible, it’s true that the majority of Jews will vote for the Democrats no matter what the Obama administration has done — or might do in a second term.

But though the discussion about the implications of the administration’s attitude toward Israel on the Jewish vote is not without substance, the issue may have far greater implications for an entirely different demographic: evangelical Christians. Support for Israel is a key issue for many religious conservatives and with Mitt Romney needing to be assured that this generally reliable Republican voting group will turn out in force for him in November, the GOP candidate is making it clear that the next administration will look and sound very different on the Middle East. That was the message Romney was sending yesterday when he told the Faith and Freedom Coalition, an evangelical Christian group, that he would do the “opposite” of Obama on Israel. The loud applause he garnered for his statements showed that there is an eager audience for a strong Republican stand on Israel even if those interested in hearing it aren’t Jewish.

Romney cut straight to the heart of the most important current issue for the U.S.-Israel alliance: Iran.

You look at his policies with regards to Iran. He’s almost sounded like he’s more frightened that Israel might take military action than he’s concerned that Iran might become nuclear.

Though President Obama has also stated that he will not accept or be content to “contain” a nuclear Iran, Romney is right when he notes that America’s priority has been to try to deter Israel so that a dead-end diplomatic process will not be disrupted.

He also complained that Obama’s public spats with Israel’s government have undermined the alliance and vowed that any disagreements between the two countries would be conducted in private on his watch.

But perhaps overarching is this: I would not want to show a dime’s worth of distance between ourselves and our allies like Israel. If we have disagreements, you know, we can talk about them behind closed doors. But to the world, you show that we’re locked arm-in-arm.”

Though this is exactly what many Jews want to hear from the Republican, it may have far more traction with evangelicals who see the administration’s lukewarm attitude toward Israel as part of a raft of religious issues on which they feel the president is wanting. That’s why Romney used the same speech to denounce the administration’s attempt to force the Catholic Church to pay for services their faith opposes as part of what he rightly decried as the administration’s war “our first freedom, religious freedom.”

Romney needs a huge turnout of evangelicals — a group that often fails to maximize its numbers at the polls — this fall if he is to beat President Obama. As conservatives work to register and mobilize conservative Christians, expect to hear more about Israel from Romney. It may be that most Jews don’t care if Romney is more sympathetic to the Jewish state, but support for Israel is an issue that a great many Christians believe is a deal breaker.

Jonathan S. Tobin


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