(CNSNews.com) – An election year battle to convince American voters that President Obama has been a steadfast friend of Israel – or alternatively, that he's been the most anti-Israel president in decades – heated up at the weekend, coinciding with Obama’s address to the a pro-Israel conference ahead of a White House meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
Obama urged the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference in Washington, D.C., to disregard Republican criticism of his record, citing arms sales to Israel and what he characterized as robust support for Israel at the United Nations.
On an issue of vital importance to Israel, he also stressed that “when it comes to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, I will take no options off the table.”
“There should not be a shred of doubt by now, when the chips are down, I have Israel’s back,” he said. “Which is why, if during this political season you hear some questions regarding my administration’s support for Israel, remember that it’s not backed up by the facts. And remember that the U.S.-Israel relationship is simply too important to be distorted by partisan politics.”
Obama advised his audience to look beyond his words, to his deeds.
“At every crucial juncture – at every fork in the road – we have been there for Israel,” he said. “Every single time.”
Republican Jewish Coalition executive director Matthew Brooks said the strong rhetoric did not match his administration’s “weak record.”
“Obama’s deeds include unprecedented pressure on Israel not to build in its eternal capital of Jerusalem, cutting critical military aid to joint U.S.-Israel missile defense program in a time of need, adopting as U.S. policy the Palestinian demand that Israel accept ‘1967 borders with land swaps’ as the basis for a final settlement, and failing to holding Palestinian leaders accountable for their refusal to keep their peace-process commitments,” he said.
Americans who support Israel, whether Jews, evangelical Christians or others, make up a significant segment of the U.S. electorate.
A newly-released Gallup poll finds that 71 percent of American respondents – 80 percent of Republicans and 65 percent of Democrats – view Israel favorably.
Jews have traditionally voted Democrat, and the National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC) scoffs at periodic speculation about a big swing to the Republican Party.
Still, a recent Pew Research Center survey found that Jews who support or lean towards the GOP increased from 20 percent to 29 percent between 2008 and 2011, while those who support or lean Democratic fell from 72 percent in 2008 to 65 percent in 2011.
The most recent Gallup poll tracking Jewish support for Obama, last September, recorded 54 percent – higher than the 41 percent Gallup found at the time for all American adults, but down from 83 percent when Obama took office.
A wide cross-section of media reporting and expert analysis has described the U.S.-Israel relationship over the past three years as troubled, even if disagreeing over attribution of blame.
Supporters of the administration see Netanyahu as a “hard-liner,” a difficult leader to deal with and one who has gone out of his way to embarrass Obama – citing, for instance, a March 2010 announcement by a bureaucratic planning body, during a visit by Vice President Joe Biden, of plans to build 1,600 new homes in a part of Jerusalem claimed by the Palestinians.
The announcement attracted a barrage of U.S. condemnation, prompted Israeli apologies, and brought new U.S. calls for Israeli concessions.
Despite such “insulting” behavior from the Israelis, argue administration supporters, Obama has provided generous assistance to strengthen Israel’s “qualitative military edge” and has consistently stood up for Israel in international forums.
“Throughout his presidency, President Barack Obama has made strengthening the U.S.-Israel relationship a top foreign policy priority,” says the NJDC. “His work to strengthen that relationship places him among Israel’s strongest supporters ever.”
Critics of Obama’s approach blame him for the tensions, accusing the president of pressuring Israel into making concessions to the Palestinians while allowing Palestinian commitments to slide. Among those concessions, Netanyahu agreed to a 10-month freeze on building in any settlement in the disputed West Bank – only to be blasted by Washington for plans to build in Jerusalem, an area which no Israeli government has ever considered a settlement.
They also accuse Obama of pandering to the Muslim world at Israel’s expense. When he delivered a keynote speech in Cairo in June 2009, many were concerned about what they saw as an attempt to balance Jewish and Palestinian suffering. (After invoking centuries of Jewish persecution culminating in the Holocaust, Obama added, “On the other hand, it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people – Muslims and Christians – have suffered in pursuit of a homeland.”)
As for Obama’s backing for Israel at the U.N., they see a mixed record at best.
The president has delivered strong words of support for Israel at U.N. gatherings – in his AIPAC speech, Obama recalled that when he did so at the General Assembly last September, “there was not a lot of applause” – and the administration has also voted against resolutions critical of Israel.
On the other hand, it allowed the Security Council to adopt a statement within 24 hours condemning Israel over the commando raid on a Turkish ship carrying pro-Palestinian activists to the Gaza Strip in May 2010.
While it vetoed a February 2011 Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements, ambassador Susan Rice declared immediately after doing so, “we reject in the strongest terms the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity,” accusing if of violating “international commitments.”
And although the administration – in compliance with U.S. law – cut funding to the U.N. cultural agency UNESCO after it became the first U.N. agency to grant “Palestine” full membership, it is now seeking a waiver and its fiscal year 2013 budget request includes $79 million for UNESCO.
A pro-Israel group has released a new 30-minute video challenging the administration’s and its supporters’ account of Obama’s policies towards Israel.
The video by the Emergency Committee for Israel begins with candidate Obama’s pledges of support for Israel, and then runs through the three years since he took office, interspersing quotes by the president, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and others with comments by experts about the state of the relationship.
“This president has done more to delegitimize and undermine Israel’s position in the world than any other president,” conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer says in one of the clips.
Obama is due to meet with Netanyahu at the White House on Monday before the prime minister addresses AIPAC on Monday evening.
GOP presidential candidates Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich are scheduled to address the event, via satellite, on Tuesday.