Seventy-eight percent of Jewish Americans supported Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential race. Minority Whip Eric Cantor, the House of Representatives' sole Republican Jewish member, is out to lure his religious group to his side of the political aisle by bringing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to Capitol Hill.
This week, Cantor's network of Republican neocons, settler-supporters, and fundamentalist Christians -- cleverly managed by a right-wing PR operation called the Israel Project -- rallied around the cause of keeping Palestinian East Jerusalem in Israeli hands. A shot across Obama's bow for 2012.
As the March 10 scandal involving VP Joe Biden illustrated, as East Jerusalem goes, so goes the Obama's plans for Middle East peace. This city, occupied by the Israeli army in 1967 and "annexed" by Israel since then, contains sites holy to Jews, Christians and Arabs and is the single most contentious issue in the conflict. It's been getting hotter in recent years because Israeli governments have moved to "keep" East Jerusalem -- building huge "settler suburbs" for 200,000 in occupied areas to the east of the city, and allowing settler groups in city neighborhoods such as Sheikh Jarrah to take over Palestinians' houses.
Under any peace agreement, parts of East Jerusalem are likely to be placed in the hands of an international governing authority. At least that's the view in the pro-peace-process world.
Cantor and the Israel Project brought to Washington a highly polarizing figure: the right-wing, settler-favoring mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat. This self-made high-tech millionaire isn't the mayor of Arab East Jerusalem under international law. He's recognized only as the mayor of the Israeli city of West Jerusalem, where the Knesset is. But he talked a good game, and his handlers sponsored a press dinner and got him several interviews in the U.S. media:
.... he said there was no flexibility on Jerusalem, which he said must remain as one under Israeli sovereignty. "There is no good example of a split city that ever worked," he said. "Giving Palestinians any grip on East Jerusalem is putting a Trojan horse for Jews in Jerusalem."
What Mayor Barkat didn't say: He has favored cleansing East Jerusalem's Silwan neighborhood of dozens of Palestinian homes to build a Zionist/Biblical theme park called the City of David and the Garden of King Solomon, created by the settler organization Elad. He has championed a settlers' housing project in the middle of Arab East Jerusalem that is a direct slap in the face of the United States -- it's named after convicted traitor Jonathan Pollard, serving a life sentence for selling American intelligence to Israel. [Right-wing Israelis who support Pollard forget that he also passed classified information to South Africa and Australia and attempted to sell information to Pakistan.]
Politico noted that an Israeli government spokesman carefully stayed away from endorsing Barkat: "'The mayor of Jerusalem is an independently elected official on a visit that he arranged,' the spokesman said."
Barkat's fact-twisting preceded him, thanks to the NGO Americans for Peace Now. Before he reached the U.S., APN circulated a document called "Top 10 Myths Likely to be Heard from Nir Barkat."
But will the mayor's appeal - clearly contrary to the sharing-Jerusalem philosophy of the Obama administration - affect how American Jews vote in 2012? Eli Lake in the Washington Times speculated:
Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, .... noted that Democrat Ted Deutch, who won a special election in Florida's 19th Congressional District for the seat of Robert Wexler on April 13, received Jewish votes by the same wide margins as Mr. Wexler had.
"If Republicans, as they say every election cycle for at least 18 years, are correct that Jewish votes are turning to their party, you'd think they would see it in the last special election, which took place in the most heavily Jewish congressional district in the country," Mr. Forman said.
Still, [Matthew Brooks from the Republican Jewish Coalition] said he is advising Republicans to make an issue of Israel in November.
"What we are advising Republicans in those races are to ask difficult questions to the Democrats running," he said. "Do you stand with Obama and his pressuring of Israel, or do you stand with the Jewish community? We are going to have it so Democrats are going to have [to] pick a side."
Polls have consistently shown that American Jews support the U.S. playing an active roll in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- the most recent poll last month found 82% in favor. Still, there's likely to be some slippage to the right among members of this community who don't support the notion of a shared Jerusalem. Some of these folks might stay with Obama if he makes significant progress on sanctions against Iran -- another of Cantor's big issues.
If Obama can't make measurable progress on the two issues that matter to this essential part of the Democratic tent -- a peace process and Iran sanctions -- we'll probably be seeing the Republicans moving in aggressively -- and cynically -- to capture the vote of Jewish Americans.
And more of Eric Cantor's "East Jerusalem tea parties."
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