Jewish donors and fund-raisers are warning the Obama re-election campaign that the president is at risk of losing financial support because of concerns about his handling of Israel.
The complaints began early in President Barack Obama’s term, centered on a perception that Mr. Obama has been too tough on Israel.
Some Jewish donors say Mr. Obama has pushed Israeli leaders too hard to halt construction of housing settlements in disputed territory, a longstanding element of U.S. policy. Some also worry that Mr. Obama is putting more pressure on the Israelis than the Palestinians to enter peace negotiations, and say they are disappointed Mr. Obama has not visited Israel yet.
One top Democratic fund-raiser, Miami developer Michael Adler, said he urged Obama campaign manager Jim Messina to be “extremely proactive” in countering the perception in the Jewish community that Mr. Obama is too critical of Israel.
He said his conversations with Mr. Messina were aimed at addressing the problems up front. “This was going around finding out what our weaknesses are so we can run the best campaign,” said Mr. Adler, who hosted a fund-raiser at his home for Mr. Obama earlier this year.
“Good friends tell you how you can improve. They don’t tell you ‘everything’s great’ and then you find out nobody buys the food in your restaurants,” he said.
It is difficult to assess how widespread the complaints are. Many Jews support Mr. Obama’s approach to the Middle East, and his domestic agenda. But Jewish fund-raisers for Mr. Obama say they regularly hear discontent among some supporters.
The Obama campaign has asked Penny Pritzker, Mr. Obama’s 2008 national finance chairwoman, to talk with Jewish leaders about their concerns, Ms. Pritzker said. So far, she said, she’s met with about a half dozen people. She said the campaign is in the process of assembling a larger team for similar outreach.
“I do think there’s an education job to be done, because there’s lots of myths that abound and misunderstandings of the administration’s record,” she said. “The campaign is aggressively getting the information out there.”
Robert Copeland, a Virginia Beach, Va., developer, who has given large donations to many Democrats, has already decided he won’t vote for Mr. Obama in 2012. “I’m very disappointed with him,” he said. “His administration has failed in Israel. They degraded the Israeli people.”
An Obama campaign spokeswoman declined to comment on Mr. Messina’s conversations with donors, but said the campaign would reach out to Jewish donors and expected strong support. She also directed questions to Ken Solomon, an Obama fund-raiser and CEO of the Tennis Channel, who said any problems were minimal and that most Jewish voters were concerned about many issues, not just Israel.
Malcolm I. Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said he saw potential for the discontent to affect Mr. Obama’s fund raising.
“It’s that people hold back, people don’t have the enthusiasm and are not rushing forward at fund-raisers to be supportive,” he said. “Much more what you’ll see is holding back now.”
Mr. Adler says he does not doubt Mr. Obama’s commitment to Israel but thinks the White House needs to do a better job communicating its support.
Three opportunities come in the next four days: On Thursday, Mr. Obama gives a speech about U.S. policy in the Middle East and North Africa, and on Friday he meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. On Sunday, Mr. Obama addresses the largest pro-Israel lobby group, the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee.
In his AIPAC speech, Mr. Obama is expected to argue that the U.S.-Israeli alliance is strong and cite his backing for initiatives such as the Iron Dome missile defense system, which is positioned near the Gaza border and has already intercepted incoming short-range rockets.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D., Fla.), chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, said the speech on Sunday should help set the record straight. “There’s nothing like hearing it straight from the president of the United States—his expression that he is strongly pro-Israel.” Some say the appointment of Ms. Wasserman-Schultz, who is Jewish, to run the DNC, is helpful in itself.
Some of Mr. Obama’s Jewish supporters hope he will visit Israel as a symbolic show of support after having visited several Muslim nations. At a small listening session this year with Mr. Messina in Palm Beach, Fla., one donor asked if Mr. Obama would do so.
“It’s definitely on the schedule tentatively out there,” he responded, according to Nancy Gilbert, an Obama supporter who was at the session. She said the 30 or so people present were happy to hear that a trip was at least under consideration.
In 2008, Jewish voters accounted for 2% of the electorate, according to exit polls. Some 78% of Jewish voters backed Mr. Obama, a better showing than the 74% who backed the 2004 Democratic nominee, John Kerry.
Some of the misgivings among Jewish supporters can be traced to specific incidents that resonated in the Jewish community. Last year, for example, Israeli media suggested Mr. Obama had snubbed Mr. Netanyahu and an Israeli delegation by leaving a White House meeting early.
The White House and Israeli officials disputed that characterization. But the incident left a lasting impression. “It was a snub,” said former New York Mayor Ed Koch, who campaigned for Mr. Obama in 2008. “My feeling was that the president was hostile to Israel.”
Mr. Koch, a Democrat, said he had been considering voting Republican in 2012, but then he saw the House proposal for privatizing Medicare for people under age 55, which he opposes. He now expects to support Mr. Obama again.
Still, Republicans see an opening. In April, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney told a gathering of the Republican Jewish Coalition that Mr. Obama should have delivered criticism of Israel’s settlement policy privately. And last year, a poll by McLaughlin & Associates, a Republican polling firm, found that 46% of American Jews said they would consider voting for someone other than Mr. Obama.
(online.wsj.com / 19.05.2011)