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December 13, 2011 6:50 pm

Candidates Raise Issues, Questions for Jewish Voters

avatar by Maxine Dovere

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Newt Gingrich addressing the Republican Jewish Coalition forum. Photo: RJC.

Republican candidates have almost universally stated their support of Israel as a Jewish State, continuing a policy – more than six decades long – of unquestioned bi-partisan support of Israel in an absolute alliance which has traditionally traversed party and policy affiliations.

On December 12, The Jerusalem Post queried if Obama administration officials are “giving the false impression that Israel has become a partisan issue.” Republican support, declares an editorial, “is being articulated at a time when key officials in the Obama administration have articulated criticism of Israel’s foreign and domestic policies, giving the false impression that Israel has become a partisan issue.”

At a recent New York Democratic fundraiser, President Obama declared that his administration “has done more in terms of the security of the state of Israel than any previous administration.” Republican Presidential candidate Newt Gingrich directly challenged the President, citing news reports he called “outrageous” that “abounded with evidence that his administration often coddles forces opposed to Israel’s very existence,” and administration officials “publicly brutalize Israel in the diplomatic arena, even calling Muslim anti-Semitism “Israel’s fault.” (Gutman/Panetta/Clinton: See previous Algemeiner article.)

“Who is it, exactly, that Israel needs to “get to the damn table” with?” asked the former Speaker in an article for Human Events. “Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority, has stopped short of even recognizing Israel’s right to exist. (Obama) has also repeatedly insisted that Israel abandon its right to defend its borders even after a Palestinian state is created.” Gingrich noted the statement of the Palestinian Authority’s ambassador to India who said “[Israelis]… fool themselves, assuming that Fatah accepts them and recognizes the right of their state to exist,… They ignore the fact that this state, based on a fabricated [Zionist] enterprise, never had any shred of a right to exist…”

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Gingrich’s criticism continued to the Obama State Department for welcoming Islamist groups with stark histories of action against women and censorship of speech while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton singles out only limited ultra Orthodox Israeli groups for their “unfair” treatment of women. Obama’s response to the overheard conversation with French President Nicolas Sarkozy who described Mr. Netanyahu as a “liar” has exacerbated the trust issue. “I thought the conversation between Sarkozy and the president the other day was really disgraceful,” said Gingrich. “I mean, to be unhappy with Benjamin Netanyahu, who is trying to survive in a dangerous neighborhood, struck me as just flagrantly inappropriate. To have our president agree with Sarkozy I thought was really disgusting, frankly.”

The White House states that it has firmly backed Israel, actively opposing efforts to win United Nations recognition for Palestinian statehood.  It cites the 3 billion dollars in military assistance, including more than $200 million for the “DOME” missile defense system, and upcoming joint military exercises with Israel as evidence. Israeli defense minister, Ehud Barak has praised the President and a recent Brookings Institution poll indicates a majority of Israeli Jews have a favorable view of Mr. Obama.

Many now consider that the campaign of once front runner Rick Perry is faltering. Despite his initial appeal to voices on the Jewish right his flubs have lessened his position. Perry has positioned himself as “an outsider who will overhaul Washington and tell you the truth.”

Newt Gingrich, who has made an unprecedented climb to the top of the Republican presidential field, garnering the support of many in the Tea Party movement who, said Harvard Professor Skocpol, “remember his glory days.” His presentation at the next-to-last Republican debate before the Iowa caucuses was calm and confident. Even candidate Rick Santorum acknowledged that “Newt Gingrich had …laid out a vision for conservative governance” that he himself had followed.

Romney and Gingrich recently debated Gingrich’s comment that the Palestinians are an “invented people,” with Romney attempting to use the issue to characterize Gingrich as undisciplined and reactive. “If I’m president of the United States, I will exercise sobriety, care, stability, and make sure that in a setting like this, anything I say that can affect a place with rockets going in, with people dying, I don’t do anything that will harm that process,” said Romney in reference to Israel.

Gingrich’s response was sharp: “I think sometimes that it’s helpful to have a President of the United States who has the courage to tell the truth,” Gingrich said, arguing that then-President Ronald Reagan went around his national security advisers to call the Soviet Union an “evil empire” and “overruled” the State Department to utter his famous “Tear down this wall” line.

“Reagan believed the power of truth restated the world and re-framed the world,” Gingrich said. “I’m a Reaganite. I’m proud to be a Reaganite. I will tell the truth, even if it’s at the risk of causing some confusion sometimes with the timid.”

Although Governor Romney has stated that he agreed with Gingrich’s declaration that the Palestinians are “an invented people,” he suggested a more moderated approach. “We’re very wise to stand with our friends, Israel, and not get out ahead of them.” Saying to Gingrich “you don’t speak for Israel… our ally, the people of Israel, should be able to take their own positions.” “The last thing Netanyahu needs to have …is (a person) running for president of the United States stand up and say things that create extraordinary tumult in his neighborhood… I will exercise sobriety, care, stability and make sure …I don’t do anything that would harm that process.”

Romney stressed the need for direct negotiations – “ultimately, the Palestinians and the Israelis are going to have to agree on how they’re going to settle the differences” – and cautioned against “mak(ing) it more difficult for (Netanyahu) to do his job.” He spoke of the value of private rather than public statements so that “the Israeli leadership (could) describe what they believe the right course is going forward…We stand with our friends and make it clear, we’re going to tell the truth but we’re not going to throw incendiary words into a place which is a boiling pot when our friends, the Israelis, would say, what in the world are you doing?” Romney told Politico’s Joe Scarborough he would avoid “language that’s so incendiary that it really excites.” and will not “say outrageous things about other people that I don’t believe in order to win political points.”

Implying that President Obama’s “let’s go back to the ’67 borders” statements have been, at the most minimum, detrimental to negotiations, Romney said he would “get on the phone to my friend Bibi Netanyahu and say, ‘would it help if I said this?…Let’s work together because we’re partners. I’m not a bomb thrower, rhetorically or literally.” An Obama speech in May which effectively set pre conditions for negotiations led Romney to say the President “has thrown Israel under the bus.”

Newt Gingrich’s characterization of the Palestinian Arabs is neither new nor unique and reminded many of the historical context through which modern Israel came into being. The United Nations partitioned the British Mandate area called “Palestine” into two states, one Jewish and one Arab. The plan was rejected by the Arabs, and in 1948 Arab states attacked Israel, leaving the areas now demanded by the “Palestinians” under control of Jordan (West Bank) and Egypt (Gaza).

The only candidate to directly criticize Gingrich’s statements, Ron Paul, called the statement “an example of how the U.S. gets into so many messes abroad.”

Some analysts say the Republican candidates’ efforts to be Israel’s biggest supporter have made the party more hawkish on Israel than Israeli Jews in general.

At the recent Republican Jewish Coalition Forum in Washington, the candidates’ commitment to the traditional American alliance with Israel and prevention of Iran getting nuclear weapons was paramount. Moving the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was a statement shared by former Speaker Gingrich and Representative Bachmann. Both she and former Governor Romney vowed to travel to Israel in their initial foreign visits.

Gingrich questioned the Obama administration’s policies toward the peace process, stressing the need for violence to stop first. Ambassador Huntsman seconded his statements saying “It is time for the world to understand who our friends and allies are. It is time for the world to understand that we stand with Israel.”

Governor Perry, noted his “personal connection” to Israel and in an effort to clarify his “starting at zero” foreign aid position, said he had not included strategic defense aid in the same category, saying “strategic defensive aid under a Perry administration will increase to Israel.” Israel he said “is the oldest democracy and our strongest ally in the Middle East. Our relationship is founded on three basic principles: prosperity, security and freedom.” He continued his remarks saying What Israel’s military needs from the United States is our ongoing security support … also needs our vocal, unerring moral support in the face of what will be inevitable international condemnation if she is forced to strike.” He voiced his respect for “the Jewish People in Israel and around the world (and) your heritage and your faith that is unsurpassed by any people on earth.

Romney has huge organizational and infrastructure advantages over Gingrich. However, in the early primary states it is not Jewish voters but “Jewish issues” that may weigh heavily on the outcome. Evangelical Christians in Iowa and South Carolina, for example, take a strong position on issues of support for Israel. Florida and Pennsylvania results may swing based on the positions of Jewish voters. If Gingrich succeeds in any combination of three primaries, Romney could be in deep trouble.

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