Jewish Washington was buzzing this week with the news – first reported in Politico, expanded on in the Jewish Week – that a few Republican heavy hitters have created an “Emergency Committee for Israel” to slam the Obama administration's Israel policies, confront the J Street lobby and PAC head on and maybe even take some pokes at AIPAC, which some conservative say is too reluctant to pound an administration it has to work with.
Several callers have asked: Won't this just turn the Israel issue into a partisan football? Will it have a big impact on Jewish voters? Here are some early answers.
No, it won't turn Israel into a political football, mostly because it's been a political football for years.
True, support for the Jewish state is bi-partisan, but that hasn't stopped Republicans from using it as a wedge issue in their longstanding effort to appeal to Jewish voters and campaign givers, and Democrats from using it whenever the opportunity arises.
It's a legitimate fear that, more and more, minor differences over Middle East policy are being exaggerated by political spinmeisters and exploited by party strategists and some pro-Israel activists whose commitment to specific ideologies in Israel is more important than the commitment to strong U.S.-Israel relations.
Listening to Republican leaders, you'd never know support for Israel is at an all-time high in Congress. Listening to Democrats, you'd think the GOP was only the party of Ron Paul and Pat Buchanan.
But this has been going on for a long time; the Emergency Committee for Israel is just the newest manifestation of an old partisan trend. And it's part of a national trend in which almost every issue gets sucked into the maws of rank partisanship.
Will it have much of an impact? Well, it depends on what you think the real goal of Committee leaders is.
Bill Kristol is a seasoned political pro. Whatever his rhetoric, he knows perfectly well that cutting into the overwhelmingly strong Jewish Democratic vote, if it occurs at all, will be an evolutionary change, not a revolution. Conservative newspapers may tout an impending partisan sea change, as they do during every election cycle, but I'm sure Kristol doesn't swallow that for a second.
Nor does Gary Bauer, the former GOP presidential contender and Christian conservative leader, who told me this week that “There's all sorts of historic and cultural reasons for the (Jewish electorate's Democratic) loyalty. Only time will tell if that remains or if it will eventually change.”
These are not stupid people; they know the Jewish-Democratic connection is based mostly on domestic issues, and that on those issues the Republicans are at a huge disadvantage.
But I suspect they know they know exactly what they're after – Jewish campaign money, not votes – and there's a good chance they'll succeed in their very pragmatic goals.
While Jewish votes are shaped mostly by domestic issues, Jewish campaign giving is skewed heavily to the Israel issue.
Getting that money into GOP coffers and denying it to the Democrats has been key goal of the Republicans for years, and by most measures they've been moderately successful. Jewish money is huge in politics, Jewish votes aren't. That, I suspect, is what this new committee is all about.
Secondarily, it may also be about the Republican quest for issues to unify a party that's being pulled in very different directions.
It's no accident that the committee's leadership is dominated by Kristol, a neocon whose focus is a muscular U.S. foreign policy, and Bauer, a leading social conservative whose big focus involves issues like abortion and fighting gay rights. Cementing the ties between these two factions and highlighting rallying-cry issues on which they agree is one way of countering a “tea party” movement that seems to be pulling the GOP in a variety of directions.
This isn't to say that Jewish voters are entirely out of the picture. There's always the hope this kind of aggressive activism can bring the Jewish electorate to a critical mass on a “threshold” issue.
What that means: Jewish voters traditionally vote on their domestic concerns unless a candidate is seen as a serious threat to Israel.
Republicans tried to make the case Bill Clinton was over that threshold and didn't succeed; they tried harder in 2008 with Barack Obama, and it didn't work. There's no indication Jewish voters are ready to see Obama in that way – but it could happen, although most evidence lately is that the President, eager to avoid new political tsuris, is pulling back from confrontation with the Israeli government.
But again, the Jewish vote just isn't big enough to make that the real focus . This is about Jewish campaign money, I'm guessing, and here the Committee could be part of a continuing GOP success in Jewish outreach.
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