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Rudy Giuliani campaigns for Romney at The Aventura Jewish Center of Florida
Stephen Crowley/The New York Times/Redux
Rudy Giuliani campaigns for Romney at The Aventura Jewish Center of Florida

Splintering bloc

Politics | Romney hopes Jews, usually an overwhelmingly Democratic constituency, will enter voting booths in November with the Middle East in mind. The prime minister of Israel hopes so too

Issue: "Inside Election 2012," Oct. 20, 2012

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.

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“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.

For profiles of Jews who have abandoned their liberal upbringings to embrace shades of conservatism, see "Right moves," Oct. 11.

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