December has been "Who Loves Israel Most" month in presidential politics.
Republican presidential candidates (minus Ron Paul) had their day on December 7 at a forum sponsored by the Republican Jewish Coalition. It was more of the old fear-and-smear of 2008 with warnings that Barack Obama was ready to sell out Israel and afraid to stand up to Iran.
Some of the GOP candidates were so anxious to denigrate the incumbent that they dragged out Nazi references by accusing him of "appeasement," a poisoned word that conjures up memories of Neville Chamberlain's concessions to Hitler. Mitt Romney and others repeated old talking points about "tossing Israel under the bus."
On Friday it was President Obama's turn. Referring to his strong commitment to Israel, he told an enthusiastic group of about 6,000 in Washington for Union for Reform Judaism’s biennial conference, "Hineni," "I am here."
His speech showed that he, too, knows how to play the Israel card to receptive audiences - and offered almost no hint of what he is likely to do in his second term as U.S.-Israel relations continue to be a mixed bag of enhanced strategic cooperation and political tension with the current government in Jerusalem.
"No U.S. administration has done more in support of Israel's security than ours. None. Don't let anybody tell you otherwise. It is a fact," he said.
He pointed to "the most funding for Israel in history," collaboration on developing an anti-missile system, leading the opposition to the Palestinian bid for U.S. membership, combating the campaign to delegitimize Israel and imposing "the most comprehensive, the hardest-hitting sanctions" Iran has ever faced
Those ties, Obama added, "transcend partisan politics – or at least they should."
The domestic component of the President's speech to the Reform movement revealed why he can expect to get a commanding majority of Jewish votes next year. He listed achievements that were generally opposed by Republicans and supported by Democrats and most Jewish voters.
The record included health care reform, repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," ending the war in Iraq, equal pay for women, expanding access to family planning and promoting clean air and clean energy legislation.
Republicans hope to offset that advantage by focusing almost exclusively on Israel and claiming that Obama isn't supportive enough.
Obama's popularity among Jewish voters has dropped by as much as 20 points from his 78 percent share of the vote in 2008, but most observers attribute that more to his handling of the economy than to his Mideast policy.
Interestingly, his popularity is rising dramatically in Israel, according to a poll for the Brookings Institution last month. His favorable rating there is 54 percent, a striking increase from the single digits in 2009.
The comeback may be surprising but "it's pretty simple, really," said former U.S. ambassador to Israel Samuel Lewis.
“In the first place Obama is spending a lot of time strengthening security arrangements with Israel, and the Israelis know that. And then he defended them in the UN and he vetoed our own position on the Palestinians” when the president rejected before the UN General Assembly in September the Palestinians’ plan for declaring statehood, Lewis told the Christian Science Monitor.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Obama's leadership on the PLO's UN strategy a "badge of honor." The two men have not had a warm and fuzzy relationship, but look for the Obama campaign to quote Netanyahu's praise on this and on his help in rescuing Israeli diplomats under attack at their embassy in Cairo and in combating the Carmel forest fires.
"We owe him a special measure of gratitude," Netanyahu said.
Obama also got a boost when Ehud Barak addressed the 6, Reform Movement and thanked Obama for "deepening and strengthening security ties between the U.S. and Israel during his term in office."
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