One of Mitt Romney’s biggest stump speakers isn’t part of his presidential campaign. He doesn’t endorse Romney, and he isn’t even American. He’s the silver-haired prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu. The prime minister’s increasingly vocal warnings about Iranian nuclear ambitions and his subtle criticism of the Obama administration could be a boon to Romney in the final weeks before the election.
Netanyahu may help Romney reach a constituency he’s carefully targeted: American Jews.
The relationship between Obama and Netanyahu, never smooth, was rockier than ever in September. The Romney campaign hasn’t missed any opportunities to call attention to Romney’s longstanding friendship with Netanyahu in its effort to win over Jewish voters, a historically liberal voting bloc. Five weeks before the election, Obama led Romney by 3-6 percentage points in poll averages in several key toss-up states, including Florida and Ohio, where Team Romney is angling to win the support of thousands of Jews. In Florida, perhaps the most important swing state, Jews make up 8 percent of likely voters. The question is whether enough are worried about those issues this year to abandon traditional loyalty to the Democratic ticket.
“Look, Obama got 78 percent of the Jewish vote in 2008. I just don’t think that’s a realistic expectation for them again,” says Tevi Troy, a Romney campaign advisor. “Obama has had a decidedly cold relationship with Israel that Jewish voters recognize and do not appreciate.”
Romney is leveraging all the Jewish connections he can in order to reach those voters. Besides Troy, who served as a White House policy advisor and Jewish liaison under George W. Bush, Romney has tapped as a campaign advisor Dan Senor, a Republican commentator with connections to political leaders in Israel. Senor co-authored, along with former Jerusalem Post editor Saul Singer, the 2009 bestseller Start-Up Nation, about the success of entrepreneurship in Israel. It was Senor who arranged for Romney to visit Israel in 2007, 2011, and this July, when the candidate courted the estimated 150,000 U.S. citizens living in Israel who are eligible to vote by absentee ballot—and who tilt conservative. Among Israeli Jews, Romney is perceived as more concerned than Obama about Israel’s interests by a ratio of 2-to-1, according to an August survey by The Israel Democracy Institute.
During the July trip Romney called Jerusalem “the capital of Israel”—a phrase the Obama administration has doggedly avoided using this year. (The Democratic Party removed symbolic language from its 2012 platform affirming Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, but reinserted it after public outcry and, reportedly, a directive from the president.)
Romney frequently highlights his friendship with Netanyahu, dating from 1976 when the two met while working for Boston Consulting Group. Years later, when Romney was governor of Massachusetts, Netanyahu visited him and shared anecdotes about reducing the size of government. Romney has boasted he and the prime minister “can almost speak in shorthand.”
Netanyahu and Obama, however, grow increasingly unfriendly. The UN International Atomic Energy Agency reported that Iran added 1,076 centrifuges to its nuclear enrichment facilities over the summer, and Netanyahu suspects the nation is developing a nuclear weapon: He wants Obama to exert more pressure against Iran. On the anniversary of 9/11, after the U.S. State Department suggested the United States wouldn’t set deadlines or “red lines”—thresholds for military action—as a way of pressuring Iran to halt its nuclear enrichment program, Netanyahu held a press conference in Jerusalem and asserted Israel’s right to act independently: “Those in the international community who refuse to put deadlines in front of Iran do not have the moral right to put a red light before Israel.”
That same day, Israeli officials said Obama had turned down a request by Netanyahu for a meeting, a claim the White House disputed. By evening Obama and the prime minister were talking on the phone, arguing for a full hour over what red line should be set before Iran. The two leaders couldn’t agree on one.
In apparent frustration, Netanyahu appeared on U.S. morning talk shows the following Sunday to warn the American people that Iran was “moving very rapidly to completing the enrichment of the uranium that they need to produce a nuclear bomb.” Political pundits said Netanyahu was meddling in the U.S. election, though the prime minister denied it.
Curiously, many American Jews don’t list the Middle East among their top policy priorities. Most Jews, including the nonpracticing, are strongly liberal, while Orthodox Jews (about 1 out of 10 Jewish voters) tend to be conservative. Another growing segment of Jews (about 1 out of 5) eschews party loyalty and identifies itself as independent. That’s the segment Romney needs.
A September poll conducted by the American Jewish Committee found 69 percent of Jewish voters in Florida supporting Obama. That’s a drop of 7 percentage points from the support Obama received from the same group four years ago, representing a likely gain of between 30,000 and 40,000 votes for Romney in Florida—the state Al Gore lost to Bush in 2000 by 537 ballots.
Steven Windmueller, a political analyst at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, said Jewish support varies by election and candidate. Although John McCain only received 23 percent of the Jewish vote in 2008, Ronald Reagan picked up a relatively high 39 percent in 1980.
Jews have maintained an “embedded loyalty” to the Democratic Party since the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Windmueller said. “He was seen as a figure that brought confidence and stability to the economy and to the country.”
Nowadays, many Jews are rethinking their families’ liberal commitments, labeling themselves independent or, more rarely, conservative. Windmueller said he’s heard from many Jewish people who say it has become difficult to have dinner table conversations about politics because of polarized views: “It’s gotten messy. Friendships have been broken.”
Bruce Marks, a former Pennsylvania state senator and now an attorney in Philadelphia, is one of the more independently minded Jewish voters. Though Marks served as a Republican senator in 1994, he comes from a family of “liberal Democrats” and voted for Al Gore in 2000 and Barack Obama in 2008. His hopes four years ago that Obama might reinvigorate the economy evolved into disappointment with stimulus spending and the healthcare overhaul. “I’m also disappointed with his record in the Middle East and his absence of a really coherent policy to address Iran,” Marks told me. “The bloom is clearly off the rose.”
Along with other former Obama supporters who now back Romney, Marks appears in a video ad posted at MyBuyersRemorse.com, a website the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) created to prod other independent-leaning Jews into supporting the Republican ticket.
The RJC conducted its most extensive election effort ever this year, spending $6.5 million to identify and reach Jewish swing voters. In September the group recruited volunteers to target Jewish neighborhoods in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida with phone calls and campaign literature that emphasized the problems in the Middle East.
Windmueller said Obama could lose this year 9 percent to 12 percent of Jews who voted for him in 2008. That prediction looked roughly on track as of September, when Gallup polling showed 70 percent of Jewish voters nationwide favoring Obama.
For Jews concerned about the Middle East, candidate Romney seeks to cast himself as the stronger ally of Israel. Obama has repeatedly stated he will prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear bomb. Romney, during his July trip to Israel, announced a stricter policy: preventing Iran from gaining nuclear weapon “capability”—a policy he reiterated in a Sept. 20 conference call with around 3,000 Jewish leaders and rabbis.
The definition of “capability” is vague, though, and could refer to one of several thresholds Iran would have to cross on the path to building a nuclear bomb. It’s a purposeful semantic distinction that gives Romney the flexibility to support a preemptive Israeli air strike against Iran to disrupt the country’s enrichment program. It’s also the kind of position Netanyahu failed to convince Obama to take in September.
Netanyahu claims to be neutral on the U.S. election, but it’s probable a Romney win would increase his clout at the White House. Last year Obama angered Netanyahu by publicly calling on Israel to revert to its 1967 boundary lines in negotiating peace with the Palestinians. Romney, on the other hand, suggests he’d defer to Netanyahu on such matters: In a primary debate in Iowa last December, Romney criticized Newt Gingrich for making an inflammatory comment about Palestinians being “an invented people.” Romney said, “Before I made a statement of that nature, I’d get on the phone to my friend Bibi Netanyahu and say, ‘Would it help if I say this? What would you like me to do?’”
In voting this November, American Jews will decide between a president who keeps Israel’s prime minister at arm’s length, and one who views him as a Middle East advisor.
Iranian leaders will test the winning candidate: During his CNN appearance, Netanyahu claimed that, “In six months or so, [Iran] will be 90 percent of the way” toward enriching the uranium needed for a nuclear bomb. That’s a prospect worrisome for more than just Jews.