Jewish Americans React To Obama's Middle East Remarks

Over the past week, much has been said about President Obama's comments about Middle East peace and Israel's borders — and the sharp response from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But how are those comments playing with the American Jewish population? To find out, Robert Siegel speaks with Ron Kampeas, Washington bureau chief for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. He says that, on the whole, American Jews are much more concerned with domestic issues, like health care, than they are with the state of Israel.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host: Over the past week, much has been said about President Obama's Middle East speech and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's sharp response to it at the White House. And much has also been said about the speeches the two men gave to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee or AIPAC, the big pro-Israel lobby. One important domestic audience for all of these speeches is the American Jewish community. It's not only very supportive of Israel, it's also very supportive of the Democratic party.

In 2008, according to the national exit poll, Jews voted for Barack Obama over John McCain by a margin of 78 percent to 21 percent. So how has the tension between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu played with American Jews? We've called upon Ron Kampeas, Washington bureau chief of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, who's written about just that. Hi.

Mr. RON KAMPEAS (Jewish Telegraphic Agency): Hi, how are you?

SIEGEL: And what have you found out?

Mr. KAMPEAS: We have yet to see how it's played with American Jews. We won't really know until they vote. Of course, American Jews take a lot more than just Israel to the polls. In fact, if you look at the polling, they often rank Israel as the 8th most important factor. They rank the health care, economy above all. And so I think in those terms, I think the President Obama, the Democratic party is still very strong with the Jewish voters.

The issue is how it's played with Jewish donors to the Democratic party and there, there has been some concern. There's sort of three levels of Jewish donorship to the Democratic party. There are Jews that donate just because overall they favor the party and then on the right, there are Jews who only donate because of Israel. And in the middle there are Jews who take a whole bunch of things into consideration.

And we'll see. We're just gonna have to see within the next few months how that - if that affects those groups on the right and in the middle.

SIEGEL: President Obama stated an assumption underlying his administration's approach to the Middle East, which is that the present situation is unsustainable. He said Israel can't remain a Jewish democratic state while ruling over a large number of Palestinians who are not citizens of any place, actually, and who are growing in numbers.

Do you get the sense that American Jews share the view that the present situation is unsustainable or that compared to 10 years ago it's pretty good?

Mr. KAMPEAS: No, I think they share the view that's it's unsustainable. Their problem is that they don't see a viable partner on the other side with the Palestinians. They're very concerned about, for instance, the recent pact that the Palestinian Authority signed with Hamas, the unity pact.

SIEGEL: And is the degree of difference that we've seen between Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu, do you think it's substantial enough that Republicans who are eager to peel away some votes from the Democrats in 2012 might actually have something to work with?

Mr. KAMPEAS: I think they might have something to work with. I mean, you saw what happened in 2000, George Bush got 19 percent of the Jewish vote. And he managed to get that up to 24, 25 percent. But what I think is more typical of that kind of swing voter is Ed Koch, the former mayor of New York. He said that he would have voted against Obama until he saw the Paul Ryan budget. And that's bringing him back to vote for President Obama. So it shows how those domestic issues do get into the equation.

SIEGEL: What did you make of some of the speakers after President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu? The Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, for example, gave a speech that many took as rebuking President Obama for his stand on borders.

Mr. KAMPEAS: I have to say that, you know, there's been a perception, it's been reported that congressional Democrats are trying to distance themselves from President Obama. I don't think that that's absolutely the case. You haven't seen it in the House leadership, for instance, even among Jewish Democrats in the House, like Howard Berman. They've been very supportive of President Obama.

Senator Reid has a different row to hoe. He's defending 23 seats in the next election and he's only challenging 10 seats. That's very, very tough. And so, from his perspective, he's going to be irritated at President Obama having handed the Republicans a wedge issue, which they say they're going to run with.

SIEGEL: Ron Kampeas, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. KAMPEAS: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Ron Kampeas is Washington bureau chief of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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