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Eye On The Jewish Vote, Romney Commits To Israel

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney places a prayer note as he visits the Western Wall in Jerusalem on Sunday.
Charles Dharapak
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney places a prayer note as he visits the Western Wall in Jerusalem on Sunday.

Speaking from Israel on Sunday, presumptive GOP nominee for president Mitt Romney said that he would respect the nation's "right to defend itself" against Iran. He said the United States also has "a solemn duty and a moral imperative" to prevent Iran from creating nuclear weapons.

Romney's trip and his speech are typical of presidential candidates, who every four years work to outdo one another when it comes to credentials on Israel and U.S. relations with the Jewish state.

In a further appeal for support, Romney also declared Jerusalem to be the capital of Israel in accordance with claims made for years by Israeli governments. The U.S. and other nations currently maintain their embassies in Tel Aviv, even though embassies are typically in a nation's capital city.

Romney also met with Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

Though Romney made his speech half a world away, the payoff for the trip will hopefully come when he returns to the U.S. to claim his party's nomination and when voters go to the polls this November.

America' Jewish Vote

Jewish Americans make up about 4 percent of the electorate, a relatively small number, yet highly sought after by Democrats and Republicans alike.

The reason is because of where those votes are located, many in key battleground states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida, where Jewish voters can make a huge difference.

In 2008, about 80 percent of Jewish voters backed President Obama. This election, groups are spending millions to get those voters to abandon him.

The Republican Jewish Coalition plans to spend $6.5 million this campaign season to unseat Obama. The group is financed largely by the billionaire Sheldon Adelson — a casino magnate who has pledged $100 million to anti-Obama superPACs.

Matt Brooks, director of the RJC, tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz that though he thinks a majority of Jewish voters will still back Obama, Republicans are gaining ground.

"The Republicans have consistently and unmistakably increased their market share among Jewish voters in four out of the last five national elections," Brooks says.

Brooks says Republicans have been making clear inroads in the Jewish community and that he expects to do it again in the 2012 election — in a "real serious way."

More Than Just Israel

Despite trips to Israel by presidential candidates, a recent survey by the American Jewish Committee found that just 22 percent of Jewish voters cited U.S.-Israel relations as their top priority in voting for a president.

Peter Beinart, the editor of Open Zion, a blog featured on The Daily Beast, says American Jews tend to vote like everybody else on things like the economy and cultural issues.

"American Jews are very liberal, in general, especially non-orthodox American Jews," Beinart tells Raz. "Most elections feature candidates who most American Jews consider 'good enough' on Israel, and then they tend to vote on other issues."

So why the pandering to Jewish voters over the issue of Israel every four years? To be fair, Beinart says, candidates pander to many groups on various issues, but that Jews just tend to notice the pandering more.

Even if they can only move a small number of Jewish voters on the Israel question, Beinart says candidates should do everything they can to win those votes.

"As we saw in 2000, these elections can be won by very small margins," he says.

The Politics Of Pander Go

Presidential candidates generally do not take an even-handed approach to Israel. Harvard professor Stephen Walt, the author of The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, tells Raz that there's little to gain for a candidate who tries to give "tough love" to both sides.

"There's no constituency on the other side that you would win ... the Arab American community or the Palestinian American is simply not as politically potent," Walt says. "So you've got almost nothing to gain ... and you've got at least something potentially to lose."

A more rewarding challenge is convincing voters that you'd be a better ally to Israel. Where Obama has raised Israel's ire in the past, Romney wants to make it clear who's side he's on.

"I would not want to show a dime's worth of distance between ourselves and our allies like Israel," he said last month to the Faith And Freedom Coalition. "If we have disagreements, you know, we can talk about them, you know, behind closed doors. But to the world, you show that we're locked arm-in-arm."

Romney has said he'll do "the opposite" of Obama on Israel, though what that would be exactly is unclear. Taken literally, Walt says, it would mean getting rid of all American economic and military assistance to Israel, as well as not vetoing Security Council resolutions critical of Israel.

"In fact President Obama, like all of his predecessors, has been very supportive of Israel," he says. "The idea that Romney would be substantially more supportive is simply wrong."

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