Nearly 20 years ago, while some of my teenage friends were out doing the kinds of things our grandparents generation would have thought morally reprehensible, I was busy doing something they might have considered even worse: handing out flyers on behalf of a Republican presidential candidate.
I still remember the sneers, and the occasional smiles, which my nascent political activity evoked, as I stood there in New York’s Grand Central Station, a yarmulke perched on my head, trying to persuade rush-hour commuters to cast their ballots for Ronald Reagan.
At the time, the very idea of a “young Jewish Republican” was still something of an oddity, as most Jews continued to lean leftwards, carrying on what for many was the equivalent of an inviolable family tradition, namely, to vote Democratic come thick or thin.
In the intervening years, of course, that has started to change, as increasing numbers of American Jews have begun to find a comfortable ideological home in the GOP, a place where they can park their political identities while still remaining true to their belief in the need for a safe and secure Israel.
But whatever gains that Republican have made among American Jews in recent years are now in danger of being erased, and the person to blame for this may be none other than George W. Bush himself.
Though Bush received just 19 percent of the Jewish vote in 2000, the aftermath of 9/11 and the president’s tough stand against Yasser Arafat enthralled numerous American Jews, leading to what many perceived to be a potentially galvanizing shift among the children of Abraham away from the Democrats and towards the party of Lincoln.
Indeed, a May 8 Boston Globe article recently noted that “after a year and a half of strong statements from President Bush about fighting terrorism, along with his equally strong backing of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel, some prominent analysts in both parties say they detect a shift in the Jewish community” toward the Republicans.
But that shift is now at risk; consider this week’s summit meeting in Aqaba with President Bush, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and Palestinian leader Abu Mazen, where Bush pressed for implementation of the roadmap leading to the establishment of a Palestinian state. By compelling Israel to make concessions inimical to its security, Bush is gambling not only with the future of the Land of Israel, but also with that of the Republican party itself.
His pursuit of the roadmap, and his insistence that Israel turn over territory to its enemies, has rightly evoked a growing sense of anger and frustration among many pro-Israel American Jews and Christians.
After all, how can Bush possibly justify coercing Israel to appease Arab terror at the same time that America is using force against it? And why should the Palestinian regime be rewarded with statehood when the Taliban and Saddam Hussein were punished with removal from power?
With next year’s presidential-election campaign just around the corner, Bush is playing with political fire, making it virtually impossible for American Jews who support Israel to fully embrace him and his party.
Consider, for example, the letter sent to the White House last week by the official Israeli branch of Republicans Abroad, in which the group warned the president that pressing ahead with the roadmap “will only serve to alienate American Jews and the Christian right.”
In the letter, the group’s leaders noted that, “We are aware of increasing numbers of American citizens, both here in Israel and in the United States, who are now considering abandoning the Republican party as a result of your administration’s pursuit of the ‘roadmap.’”
And if you think the Jewish vote doesn’t matter any more in American politics, then think again.
According to a 2001 study by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 55 to 60 percent of American Jews consistently vote Democratic, 10 percent are loyal Republicans, while 30 to 35 percent “can be lured by any party depending on its position.” Sprinkled among key battleground states in the campaign, that large group in the middle “adds up to a swing vote representing up to 2 percent of the electorate in states like Florida and Pennsylvania,” says the study.
In either case, “a shift of that amount would have changed the result in that state and, in all probability, single-handedly crowned the American president. Put another way, the Jewish swing vote, mobilized behind a particular candidate, would have given him the 2000 election.”
Thus, the Jewish vote remains key, and is sure to play an important role in next year’s presidential-election campaign.
But the political risk to Bush may be even greater than just the loss of Jewish votes, for his strong-arm tactics against Israel have also started to arouse the ire of a key component of his core constituency, the Christian right.
Just last Thursday, Bush received a political warning shot across his bow from Christian televangelist Pat Robertson, the founder of the Christian Coalition and a former Republican presidential candidate.
Speaking on the Christian Broadcasting Network, Robertson declared, “the president of the United States is imperiling the nation of Israel. Not only is he going against the clear mandate of the Bible, which is very important, but he’s also setting up a situation where Israel will no longer have secure borders.”
He even suggested that Bush’s insistence on establishing a Palestinian state “will be the beginning of the end of the state of Israel as we know it.”
Those are pretty strong words, the kind of words that could cost Bush and his fellow Republicans a lot of votes next year if they aren’t careful.
Sure, Bush’s approval ratings may still be riding high after the recent war in Iraq, but as the memory of the victory fades, and a lethargic economic recovery sets in, if at all, those numbers will begin to slide, and the president knows it.
Hence, as unlikely as it may seem right now, the outcome of next year’s presidential race is far from being a foregone conclusion.
It is therefore imperative that Republicans — Christian and Jew alike — speak up now, loudly and unequivocally, against the roadmap.
Not just because it endangers the future of Israel, although that should be reason enough, but also because it threatens to undermine the principled stand which the party has taken in the global war on terror, in the process needlessly driving away countless numbers of sympathetic Jewish and Christian voters alike.
There is simply no good moral, political, or ideological reason for Bush to be twisting Israel’s arm, and he needs to understand that he will pay a price at the ballot box if he does.
Republicans who care about Israel, then, need to rise up and send the president a clear and unambiguous message: If you choose Palestine, then come November 2004, we will not hesitate to choose someone else in your stead.
— Michael Freund served as deputy director of communications and policy planning under former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.