TOPICS > Politics

Will Mitt Romney’s Israel Trip Help Win Over Jewish Voters in the U.S.?

July 30, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
The majority of Jewish Americans consistently vote for the Democratic Party. So will Mitt Romney's endorsement of key Israeli policies woo Jewish voters at home? Judy Woodruff talks to J Street's Jeremy Ben-Ami and Emergency Committee for Israel's Noah Pollak about which way the Jewish vote is likely to swing this November.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: So what impact will Mitt Romney’s trip to Israel have on voters, especially Jewish voters in the United States?

For that, we get two views. Jeremy Ben-Ami is the founder and president of J Street, a nonprofit lobbying group with its own political action committee. And Noah Pollak is the executive director of the Emergency Committee for Israel, a conservative political advocacy organization that paid for that television spot we just showed you.

Gentlemen, thank you both for being here.

JEREMY BEN-AMI, J Street: Thank you for having us.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Jeremy Ben-Ami, how would you, overall, size up Governor Romney’s trip to Israel?

JEREMY BEN-AMI: Well, I’m sure he got a few very useful photo-ops for commercials down the road. But in terms of the substance of the trip, I don’t think there was much that he’s going to be able to write home about.

I think the flap that has begun over his remarks about the cultural differences between Israelis and Palestinians is something they’re going to have to clean up for a little while. And, certainly, some of the promises made that can’t be kept when and if he were to become president regarding let’s say the movement of the embassy or other such matters are certainly holes he’s going to have to dig out of.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Noah Pollak, what about that? His statement about Jerusalem being the capital of Israel, is that something he would have to walk back as president?

NOAH POLLAK, Emergency Committee for Israel: No.

I actually think the extent to which he has really dug in on that and made that a real point of contrast with President Obama is something that will probably carry through if he wins, because it is such a point of great contrast. And the trip in general was really one that — I disagree with my friend Jeremy — it was one that I thought revealed some real contrasts between what a President Romney would do and how the Obama administration has dealt with Israel over the past few years.

The Obama administration — the Obama campaign challenged Romney to show these points of difference before his trip. And I think he did on Iran, on the issue of Jerusalem and several other things.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why do you believe, Jeremy Ben-Ami, that the Jerusalem statement is something that he could not carry out as president if he were elected?

JEREMY BEN-AMI: Well, the actual status of Jerusalem is really one of the most sensitive issues in all of Middle East diplomacy.

And all administrations, Republican and Democrat, whether it’s Ronald Reagan and George Bush or Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, have said what this White House said and what you showed in the segment leading up, which is that that is ultimately an issue for final status negotiations between the parties.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, given that, how do you — why do you believe it’s something he can stick to?

NOAH POLLAK: Because there’s a very easy way out of this, which is that Jerusalem — the capital of Israel is in Jerusalem. The Palestinian capital is not in Jerusalem.

And the various buildings and institutions that make up Israel’s capital like the Knesset, and the court, and the prime minister’s office, and the Foreign Ministry, are all in western Jerusalem, which was part of Israel even before 1967.

And it would be very easy actually I think for a new administration to make a policy change on that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you respond?

JEREMY BEN-AMI: Well, I think it would be very easy to do that. And that would, of course, then blow up the possibility of the United States playing a useful leadership role in resolving the conflict as an intermediary and mediator between the sides, which is the role that we need.

In order to be pro-Israel, a president of the United States needs to help to facilitate a two-state solution of this conflict. Prejudging the outcome on one of the critical issues is not helpful.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Noah Pollak, what about the other statement that got a lot of attention, Governor Romney saying that the difference between the Israelis and the Palestinians — it was, the Israelis’ economic success was due to their culture, and the Palestinians have taken great offense at that.

NOAH POLLAK: Romney actually understated the difference in the levels of success.

And Romney was right. When Yasser Arafat died a few years ago, it was discovered that he had hundreds of millions of dollars in money that he siphoned off. The Palestinian economy is largely based on Western aid. It has endemic corruption problems. And he was right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, why would that be a problem?

JEREMY BEN-AMI: Well, I think that it sort of turns a blind eye to the critical fact that the Palestinians are under Israeli occupation, which is a slight barrier to economic development. There’s no free movement of goods. There’s no free economy as long as you’re an occupied…

JUDY WOODRUFF: You’re being facetious. You mean it’s a serious barrier.

JEREMY BEN-AMI: It’s a very serious barrier. And I think to underestimate that and to put the difference down to culture is really showing a lack of sensitivity to the entire history of this conflict in this region.

NOAH POLLAK: It also happens to be true, though.

The reality is, is that after 1967, after Israel seized those territories, Gaza and the West Bank, there was actually an economic boom in those territories, because the Palestinian economy became more closely integrated with the Israeli economy.

And if you look at the actual numbers from the late ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, there was double-digit GDP growth. And there was a dramatic improvement in all sorts of measures of Palestinian quality of life because they became closer to Israel in a number of these ways.

And so just as a simple matter of economics, it’s pretty difficult to refute the fact that the occupation, if you want to call it that, of the West Bank and Gaza has actually been good for the Palestinian economy.

JEREMY BEN-AMI: Well, I would challenge Noah to find one Palestinian, one anywhere in the world, whether on the West Bank and Gaza or anywhere, who would say that the occupation has been good for the Palestinian people or the Palestinian economy.

I don’t think they view it that way. I don’t think that the Arab world views it that way, the rest of the world or most objective human beings who would view it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jeremy Ben-Ami, what about the comment that we heard from a voter, a Jewish voter in South Florida, who said she was disappointed that President Obama had not visited Israel during his presidency?

JEREMY BEN-AMI: Well, I think that, again, you have to look at the actual relationship between the United States and Israel under this president, rather than symbolic gestures like a visit.

Just today, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said that the security relationship between the United States and Israel is tighter and closer today than it’s ever been under any U.S. administration. And it’s really actions that speak louder than travel.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about that comment?

NOAH POLLAK: I thought — I greatly sympathized with the sentiments she expressed — no relation, by the way, despite having similar last names.

The fact of the matter is that there’s a reason why Obama didn’t visit Israel. Obama traveled to the Middle East in his first term on several occasions. He did town hall meetings in Turkey. He accepted an award from the Saudis. He gave a big speech in Cairo. And he chose to skip Israel every time. And it was because he pursued a policy, as he told a group of Jewish leaders at the White House, of daylight between America and Israel as a way of trying to gain credibility with the Arabs.

And it’s a policy that — there was a front-page Story in The Washington Post two weeks ago all about what a failure this policy has been. And I think anyone looking at the objective facts of Obama’s inability to forge peace in the Middle East can see that his policy of being tough on Israel and snubbing Israel in this way has not been a success.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You want to respond?

 

JEREMY BEN-AMI: Well, I certainly wish that the president had visited Israel as well. And we have called on him to do that.

But we have to remember that most American presidents have not visited Israel, including, again, Ronald Reagan, George Bush until the end of his term. Presidents don’t all visit Israel. And there were many, many other priorities in his term.

The bottom line is results, and the bottom line is the close relationship that this country has with the state of Israel and the security guarantees that it continues to provide.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you think this trip, Noah Pollak, will affect Governor Romney’s standing with Jewish voters in this country?

NOAH POLLAK: This is something that I think Republicans always chase after and I think it’s something they shouldn’t worry too much about.

I think Jewish voters, like all voters, make their voting decisions on the basis of a wide range of issues. I think probably Jewish voters pay more attention to Israel than others do. And probably there is a lot more complaints among Jewish voters about Obama’s record on this. And it could be influential in a state like Florida.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you think?

JEREMY BEN-AMI: Well, I’m glad to agree with Noah on a few things here.

I think Jews not a single-issue constituency and they don’t vote just based on Israel. And I think there has been a short of case after the Holy Grail, which is the wrong religion but the right metaphor, in trying to get change in the Jewish vote based on the Israel issue. Jews vote on the economy, education, environment. And they vote traditionally Democratic.

And they average 70 percent support for the Democratic president for — candidate, and I believe they will hit that mark again this time.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And just quickly, the two of you, how determinative do you believe the Jewish vote will be in the outcome of this election? You mentioned Florida.

NOAH POLLAK: You could imagine a scenario in which Florida came down to a closeness like it did in 2000, in the year 2000, when, you know, it was decided by a few hundred or a few thousand votes. And that, you know, you could imagine after the election people parsing all the numbers and determining that Obama’s decline in support among the Jewish vote cost him Florida, which cost him the election.

But that’s probably not going to happen.

JEREMY BEN-AMI: The only problem — the only problem that the president has with the Jewish vote is that there aren’t more Jews.

When you get 70 percent of the vote in one particular constituency, the only thing you want is more of them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we hear you. And gentlemen, we thank you both for being here.

Jeremy Ben-Ami, Noah Pollak, thank you.

NOAH POLLAK: Thanks.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And on our website, we want you to know we will have more on the Jewish vote and Governor Romney’s international journey in tomorrow’s Morning Line.