Capping a race that on a national level was largely defined by the economy but in the Jewish community turned into an extended debate over which candidate would steer the best course for the U.S.-Israel relationship, President Barack Obama defeated Republican challenger Mitt Romney to earn a second term.
Obama won 69 percent of the Jewish vote, according to a CNN exit poll, representing a nine-point drop from the 78 percent he garnered in 2008 exit polls.
National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC) President and CEO David A. Harris, speaking exclusively with JNS.org after major television networks called the race for Obama on Tuesday night, said he “and the clear majority of American Jews” are “reassured by having President Obama in office for another four years.”
“The president has a stellar pro-Israel record,” Harris said. “The facts speak for themselves. Whether it’s missile defense or some of the closest [U.S.-Israel] security cooperation ever, or heralding an era of isolating Iran like never before, I see that continuing—the close cooperation between the United States and Israel continuing into and through the next four years during what’s a crucial period for Israel’s security.”
The recent course of the U.S.-Israel relationship, however, has also included disagreements between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on how to deal with the Iranian nuclear threat, with Obama refusing to set the “red lines” for U.S. military action that Netanyahu has requested; in one interview, with the “60 Minutes” program on CBS, Obama called those demands “noise.” His administration has repeatedly stressed that there remains time for diplomacy and sanctions to work in Iran.
Just a day before the election, Yedioth Ahronoth reported that senior Obama advisor Valerie Jarrett has been leading secret talks with Iran for several months. That story followed a New York Times report last month that said the U.S. had agreed to direct negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program for the time—a report denied first by the White House, then by Obama himself in the third presidential debate.
Jonathan Tobin, senior online editor of the conservative Commentary magazine, told JNS.org on election night that Obama’s win will mean “probably four years of ongoing tension with the government of Israel, which is likely to be led by the same person (Netanyahu) with whom Obama is engaged in a long-term feud”—including tension on Iran, especially if Obama approves an Iranian deal brokered by Jarrett.
However, Tobin acknowledged that the “infrastructure of the [U.S.-Israel] alliance isn’t going anywhere.”
“At its worst, there will be problems as there have been over the last four years, but there are limits as to how far even a reelected President Obama can take his disputes with Israel,” Tobin said.
Netanyahu congratulated Obama on his victory by saying in a statement, “The strategic alliance between Israel and the U.S. is stronger than ever. I will continue to work with President Obama in order to assure the interests that are vital to the security of the citizens of Israel.”
While Israel was a widely debated election issue in the Jewish community, “American Jews and first and foremost Americans, and like other Americans they are concerned very much about the economy and jobs,” Harris said, calling that “the president’s number one priority today and immediately.” Harris added that he is “confident that the president will have a couple of Supreme Court appointments in his next term in office,” something he said will have implications for issues of concern to Jews including civil rights, reproductive rights, and following through on “Obamacare” health insurance reform.
The Jewish vote
Richard Baehr, chief political correspondent for the conservative American Thinker, told JNS.org “As best I can tell, the shift in the Jewish vote didn’t shift any states.”
“If the Jewish vote was 9 percent more Republican than it was in 2008, when the estimates were 78 percent… maybe it kept the race a little bit closer there than it would have otherwise been, but it didn’t put Romney over the top,” he said. Exit polls showed 66 percent of Florida Jews voting for Obama.
Perhaps further deemphasizing the significance of the Jewish vote is the country’s increasing number of Hispanic voters, an area where some polls had Romney losing by as many as 50 percentage points, Baehr said. But ultimately, he said it is “the result that mattered, not how one group votes.”
“Even though there was a decline in the number [of Jewish votes for Obama], that it didn’t come into play into shifting any states is not a good sign for those who try to create an image that it were a very important part of the overall electorate,” Baehr said.
The battle for the Jewish vote was hotly contested in the swing states of Florida, Ohio, Nevada and Pennsylvania, with the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) running a $5 million “Buyer’s Remorse” television advertising campaign in those states that featured Jews who supported Obama in 2008 but regretted that decision. RJC’s advertising in swing states—which also included “Obama…Oy Vey!!” billboards in South Florida—totaled $6.5 million.
Rabbi David Steinhardt of B’nai Torah Congregation in Boca Raton, Fla., told JNS.org election season was “a very, very challenging period of time and a very difficult campaign.” In his congregation, however, Steinhardt said “people were really respectful of each other in the conversation, surprisingly so, looking at how things began.” Steinhardt said much of the pro-Obama sentiment in his community was “quiet support,” as opposed to the more aggressive approach of Romney supporters during the race.
As far as the U.S.-Israel relationship is concerned, Steinhardt believes “the policies will remain pretty consistent as to what they have been.” He said Israel “can depend on the United States as an ally in what takes place moving forward.”
Rabbi Misha Zinkow of Temple Israel in Columbus, Ohio, recalled the intense campaign in his state.
“From our vantage point here in Ohio, the campaign was caustic, exploited people’s worst fears, and was even insulting to the intelligence of voters,” Zinkow told JNS.org. “As a result, here and across the country, [Obama] will have much healing to do.”
Zinkow is also “concerned that our country’s most vulnerable will become the victims of political extremism and ideological intransigence.”
“We will need courageous leadership in the White House and in Congress,” he said.
Regarding what Obama’s victory means for Israel, Zinkow said the U.S. and Israel “are friends and allies, regardless of who is president.”
Rabbi Mitchell Levine of Congregation Agudas Achim, also in Columbus, described “a season of robust political debate” that was “healthy for democracy.” While the election will not likely solve what Levine called an “underlying problem of political gridlock,” Jews still used the process to “remain a unified people,” he told JNS.org.
“We know it is possible to disagree passionately and still find a way to achieve common cause,” Levine said.
In New Hampshire, Rabbi Joshua Segal of Congregation Betenu in Amherst told JNS.org it was his sense that “on social issues the Jewish community would never even consider Romney,” and that the greater Jewish community “was very pleased with Obama.” Obama has “constantly supported Israel with Iron Dome and other military things,” Segal said.
In South Carolina, a state Romney won, Rabbi Jonathan Case of Beth Shalom Synagogue in Columbia told JNS.org that both candidates spoke “the same language when it came to Israel.”
“In their televised debates and at rallies they were both forcefully arguing for Israel’s security and the need to fend off the potential danger from Iran,” he said. “Long gone are the presidential contenders who are anti-Israel.”
According to Case, in Columbia there was “a real divide” between the supporters of the candidates when it came to the issue of Israel, in which two camps were “staunchly entrenched in their respective beliefs that the other side is not only wrong; it is dangerous.”
“I cannot say I have met anyone who is borderline in this divisive issue [of Israel],” Case said.
Future of the U.S.-Israel relationship
Stanley Dubinsky, the director of Jewish Studies at the University of South Carolina, told JNS.org that he thinks Obama’s “goals for the Middle East should be to learn about the complex nature of politics there, so [he will] have ideas that are less simplistic and thereby dangerous.”
“Maybe he’s learned his lesson from Syria and Libya, maybe he’ll be less naÃ¯ve,” Dubinsky said. “That will be welcome.”
Although he said Obama is tacitly supporting, or at least not opposing, Islamic radicalism in the Middle East, Dubinsky is not worried.
“That would worry me if there was a clear march of Islamic groups to consolidate power, but in the last 12 months the Islamic world has turned into complete chaos,” he said.
The coordination between the U.S. and Israel is “going to be become very important for Israel now,” and the question is “whether Obama decides to shift,” American Thinker‘s Baehr told JNS.org.
“Now that he has won his last election, and doesn’t, to an extent, need Jewish votes or Jewish money anymore, does he try to stick it to Israel, which some on our side thought was clear intention?” Baehr said. “The fact that it’s even discussed as an option is suggestive that some Israelis have to have concerns.”
Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren—at least publicly—is not concerned: he said the relationship between Obama and Netanyahu “is completely fine” and that he doesn’t “expect any change regarding Israel in Obama’s second term.” Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon said Obama will not “take revenge on Israel” in his second term and that the president “will focus on his legacy; mostly on internal issues, on foreign policy and especially on the Arab world.”
Commentary magazine’s Tobin told JNS.org that moving forward, the U.S.-Israel relationship “will partly be defined by the attitudes of the White House, which are not tremendously sympathetic to Israel’s security and to its position,” but will also be dictated by Israel’s “antagonists”—the Palestinians and the Iranians.
“It could be that even Barack Obama has learned his lessons about the Palestinians and won’t be wasting any political capital—as he did consistently, especially over his first two years in office, when trying to tilt the diplomatic playing field in their direction only to find out that they weren’t interested in talking, anyway,” Tobin said. “It could be that even with his best intentions to engage with Iran or craft a sort of secret deal or not-so-secret deal with Iran, that Iran won’t do a deal, and that he will have then painted himself into a corner since he has pledged never to allow them to go nuclear, and indeed in the third presidential debate pledged that he would not allow them to have a nuclear program anyway, even in a deal.”
“The nature of the U.S.-Israel relationship will… be defined by the decisions that Israel’s foes make, and that’s the variable,” he said.
—With reporting by Alina Dain Sharon