Israel divides but does not define Jewish vote
The Financial Times
July 1, 2008
Nathan Diament used to play basketball with Barack Obama at Harvard Law School and remembers his college contemporary as a soothing voice of compromise in the student politics of the day.
Almost 20 years later, Senator Obama is an election away from being the first African-American president of the US, while Mr Diament is public affairs director of the Orthodox Union, the most influential umbrella group of the country’s conservative orthodox Jewish communities.
Mr Diament is still an admirer but, when it comes to Middle East policy, he has concerns about people in Mr Obama’s camp whom he believes would pressure Israel too much. “You clearly have people who support Obama who are of that mindset,” he told the Financial Times. “People like former ambassador Kurtzer.”
Daniel Kurtzer is a fellow orthodox Jew who served as US ambassador to Israel until 2005 and now acts as adviser on the Middle East to the Democratic candidate.
A frequent target of criticism in Israel – and even outright abuse from some right-wing politicians, who accuse him of being insufficiently supportive of the host country during his five-year ambassadorship – Mr Kurtzer recently told a liberal Jewish forum in New York that administration policy during most of the George W. Bush presidency was “frankly, out to lunch”.
The political differences between Mr Diament and Mr Kurtzer underscore a fierce debate among US Jews about policy towards Israel, one that has been sharpened by recent years of Palestinian violence and Israel’s tactics in suppressing it.
As Mr Obama and John McCain, his Republican rival, pursue a variety of ethnic and religious constituencies in their campaigns for the White House, the lesson of previous elections is that, if it ever existed, there is no longer a “Jewish vote” that responds automatically to unswerving and uncritical support for Israel.
Established and influential right-wing lobbies, such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, now have to compete with smaller newcomers such as JStreet, a dovish pro-peace group that favours more robust US diplomacy to bring Israel and the Palestinians to a peace agreement.
Mr Kurtzer wants a new US president to engage more deeply in the search for peace and has co-written what he calls a “minimanual” for the next administration that includes advice on how to help both sides make the necessary concessions to achieve it.
From his conservative standpoint, Mr Diament is spokesman for an Orthodox Union campaign that insists such concessions should not include a division of Jerusalem, even if an Israeli government supported it.
That standpoint appeared to receive a boost from Mr Obama this month, when he won a standing ovation during a speech to Aipac with his declaration that: “Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided.”
The Democratic candidate’s hawkish statement might have reflected, in part, his desire to deflect a persistent e-mail campaign targeting the Jewish community with claims that he is both anti-Israel and a secret Muslim.
However, Obama aides later backtracked on the Jerusalem commitment after it was denounced by Arab leaders such as Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president. They claimed the senator had merely meant the city should not be divided – as it was until 1967 – by physical barriers.
The clarification proved unconvincing and gave an opportunity for Republicans to accuse Mr Obama of flip-flopping on the issue.
Such policy acrobatics are unlikely to have too much impact on election day.
Most US Jews are not single issue-voters and they have historically voted overwhelmingly for the Democrats, as Mr Diament acknowledges. “Jews are more liberal on a whole range of issues that Americans care about.”
In the small but increasingly politically-engaged orthodox community, however, the electoral statistics are reversed.
About 70 per cent of orthodox Jews voted for Mr Bush in 2004, a reflection of his tough pro-Israeli stance and social conservatism on issues of concern to both conservative Jews and to the pro-Israeli Christian right.