Laura Meckler had a piece in this morning’s Wall Street Journal about Jewish donors’ warning Obama not to push Israel too hard in his Middle East speech today. If she’s right about Jewish discomfort with Obama’s Middle East policies — and I think she is — Jewish donors and voters alike will not be comforted by Obama’s speech.
There were three main problems with the address. The first is the way in which Obama explained the ongoing Israeli–Palestinian conflict. It is notable that when Obama said, “Israeli settlement activity continues. Palestinians have walked away from talks,” he put the Israeli action first. A plausible interpretation of this is that, in Obama’s view, Palestinians walked away as a result of Israel’s settlement activity, and the Palestinian walkaway is therefore justified.
Second is that Obama did not demand an end to Palestinian misbehavior so much as predict, in a removed way, that such behavior will not serve them well:
For the Palestinians, efforts to delegitimize Israel will end in failure. Symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations in September won’t create an independent state. Palestinian leaders will not achieve peace or prosperity if Hamas insists on a path of terror and rejection. And Palestinians will never realize their independence by denying the right of Israel to exist.
Compare this with Bush’s starker and more direct words on the subject in his June 24, 2002, speech:
And the United States will not support the establishment of a Palestinian state until its leaders engage in a sustained fight against the terrorists and dismantle their infrastructure.
When it comes to Israel, however, Obama returns to demand, rather than predictive, mode, saying that “Israel too must act boldly to advance a lasting peace.
Third, Obama placed few limits on his support for a two-state solution. He also minimized Israel’s security concerns and limited Israel’s negotiating leverage by calling for a state with 1967 borders, instead of letting the parties themselves hash out the parameters. Again, compare this with the words of Bush, who rightly made American support for a Palestinian state contingent on concrete Palestinian actions:
If Palestinians embrace democracy, confront corruption, and firmly reject terror, they can count on American support for the creation of a provisional state of Palestine.
All of this is not accidental. Presidential speeches are written and rewritten so that they convey specific messages.
For these reasons, Obama has ample reason to worry about a poor reception when he speaks to a very pro-Israel audience at AIPAC this Sunday. In addition, Obama’s campaign goal of raising $1 billion becomes much harder if he loses major Jewish fundraisers. While Bush’s 2004 improvement in the polls among American Jews was relatively small — from 19 percent support in 2000 to 24 percent in 2004 — Bush also poached a number of significant fundraisers from the Democratic side because of his pro-Israel stance.
Finally, Obama has reason to fear a poorer showing in the overall Jewish vote in 2012. More important, though, it’s not just Jewish voters Obama needs to worry about. Polls have consistently shown that Americans in general are supportive of Israel. Jews are only 2 percent of the population, but the percentage of Israel backers who will be going to the polls in 2012 will be much higher.