This being an election year, no government action is without its baldly political dimension. That’s true even of George Bush’s show of support — robust even by his standards — for Ariel Sharon’s disengagement plan, which, while no doubt driven largely by conviction and geopolitical considerations, might have the happy side-effect of bringing a larger-than-usual quotient of swing-state Jewish votes into the GOP column this November.
Bush endorsed Sharon’s plan to disengage from parts of Gaza in exchange for retaining settlements on the West Bank won during the 1967 war. The president said it was “unrealistic” for Palestinian refugees to return to the West Bank or return to pre-war boundaries. But because Sharon’s plan was not developed with Palestinian input, many argue that Bush is turning his back on Palestinian concerns. It also signifies a major shift in U.S. policy, held for some 20 years, that the West Bank settlements are obstacles to peace.
At a news conference, Bush called Sharon’s plan “historic and courageous.” He said:
“His future depends upon his capacity to convince the Israeli people he’s doing the right thing, and I think he is. He’s a bold leader. That’s what people want. They want leadership. There is a process that got stuck, and the prime minister steps up and leads.”
Palestinian reaction was angry. Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia told reporters that Bush’s support for Sharon’s plan “kills the rights of the Palestinian people. We as Palestinians reject that. We cannot accept that. We reject it and we refuse it.”
Bush already faces growing Arab resentment over the continuing violence and unrest in Iraq, and this latest move merely reinforces the widespread perception that he is anti-Arab. Pollster John Zogby told the Washington Post, “This is pretty much the final nail in the coffin of the peace process as far as Arabs are concerned.” He said his polling indicates the Palestinian cause is among the top three issues for 90 percent of Arabs in all Arab countries he has surveyed. “It’s not even a political issue, it’s a bloodstream issue,” Zogby said.
But many Republicans care much less about Arab opinon than about Jewish. The GOP hopes that this Bush administration, which is more aggressively pro-Israel than other recent administrations, will sway Jewish voters, who historically have been a solid Democratic voting bloc.
(Bush generally poorly with Arab-Americans, so he doesn’t have much to lose on that front. Zogby found last year around this time that Bush would win only 1/3 of Arab American votes.)
Jews make up only 2-3 percent of the U.S. population. However, as Carl Schrag wrote in Slate last month, they are significant for several reasons:
“First of all, Jews tend to vote in larger numbers than other ethnic groups. Secondly, their concentration in urban areas in high-population states means their votes help determine the allocation of large numbers of Electoral College votes. And finally, they don’t limit their political activism to Election Day; Jews have been among the most generous supporters of political campaigns, especially those of Democratic candidates.”
In a tight election, even a small number of votes could give Bush a crucial edge in battleground states such as Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania. And considering Bush only got 19 percent of the Jewish vote in 2000, it seems he can only do better this time around.
In fact, the American Jewish Committee released a poll in January showing that when compared with Kerry, 31 percent of American Jews would vote for President Bush if presidential elections were held then. Nathan Diament, a lobbyist for the Orthodox Jewish movement told the Post: “Given that Jews turn out at an 80 percent turnout rate, if you swing the Jewish vote 10 percent in Ohio, that could give you Ohio.”
Ami Horowitz in the Weekly Standard notes the power of Jewish Americans turn an election:
“A stunning reminder of Jewish political power came in the 2002 midterm elections, with the ousting of two vehemently anti-Israel legislators, Cynthia McKinney and Earl Hilliard. Both were Democrats and both were career antagonists towards Israel. The Jewish community targeted their reelection efforts. Both lost. (Interestingly, much of McKinney and Hilliard’s money came from the Arab-American community.)”
Republicans argue that Bush’s move on Wednesday in support of Sharon’s policies may mean a movement in Jewish voters favorable to Bush. Florida is home to the 3rd largest population of Jews in the country at 750,000 Jews, or 5 percent of the electorate. Considering Florida was decided in 2000 by a few hundred votes, and it’s already viewed as “the Florida of 2000” for this year’s election, it will no doubt be a close race.
“This will make it that much harder for John Kerry to win Florida,” said a Republican aide.
House Chief Deputy Majority Whip Eric I. Cantor (Va.), the House’s only Jewish Republican told the Post:
“American Jews see that President Bush gets the fact that Israel is fighting the same fight against terrorism that we are. The very liberal Jews are not going to be able to put aside their environmental or abortion politics. But for the mainstream Jewish community, Israel is of paramount importance.”
Another indication that more Jews may vote for Bush this time around is that he has proven himself to be a friend to Israel. As Horowitz writes:
“In 2000, the Jewish community viewed George W. Bush with more than a small amount of wariness as he entered office. His father was not considered a friend of Israel and many thought the younger Bush would continue his father’s
policies towards the Jewish state. Instead, he not only walked away from his father’s views, but is perceived by many to be the most ardent supporter of Israel to ever occupy the White House.
How? For starters, Bush moved his administration decisively away from the Clinton doctrine of moral equivalency. His June 24, 2002 speech, in which he placed the blame for the current round of Middle East violence squarely on the shoulders of the Palestinian leadership, was a watershed policy statement. Bush has allowed Israel to take measures in self defense and has taken bold steps to reshape the Middle East towards the goal of democratizing the region. He has also surrounded himself with senior policy advisors who share his desire to support the Jewish state.”
It’s true that Israel is an important issue for many Jews (Schrag says he spoke with one women who told him, “Bush has been so good for Israel, and that’s so important to me. I’m a lifelong Democrat. How can I vote for Bush?”) But it’s not true to say that most Jews are one-issue voters.
Indeed, one Republican official said “If it were true that these voters vote only on Israel, we would already be carrying the Jewish vote.”
Likewise, it’s not necessarily true that Jews who are highly engaged with Israel are necessarily aligned with Bush and Sharon. There are many American Jews who may not agree with Sharon’s hardline tactics.
Kerry clearly thinks Bush’s decision was a good move politically, and he was careful to praise it:
“I think that could be a positive step. What’s important obviously is the security of the state of Israel, and that’s what the prime minister and the president, I think, are trying to address.”
Kerry has a long, positive record on Israel and is in step with mainstream Jewish ideas about foreign and domestic issues.
As Schrag concludes in Slate:
“Jews would have to overlook major points of contention on domestic issues in order to reward Bush for standing by Israel.
If we’re in for a tight race in November, even a few thousand Jewish votes for Bush—especially in a swing state like Florida—could be the key to a second term in the White House.”