Charlotte, N.C. — Reports that the Obama administration is considering clarifying what might trigger American military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities received a mixed reaction here from two Democratic members of the New York congressional delegation.
“I think it’s a good idea,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler of Manhattan. “He’s been getting tougher and tougher with Iran — more than other governments. I assume he has already said privately to Iran what the line is.”
But Rep. Gary Ackerman of Queens and Long Island rejected the suggestion.
“A president never gives away such things in advance,” he said. “It’s usually not a good idea for a president to make pledges based on a hypothesis. He has said to Israel, ‘We have your back.’”
Asked his reaction to the pledge of Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) to submit legislation this month spelling out what that means in terms of military, economic and political support, Ackerman replied that President Barack Obama is “already doing it. Israel is getting more money than ever … and militarily Iran will not be allowed to have a nuclear weapon. No president has ever said that. He has said he would not allow it to happen — and that commits the U.S. …We would lose the support of the immediate world if he declares he is going to bomb somebody.”
Their comments came on the sidelines of the Democratic National Convention here where Obama and Vice President Joe Biden are expected to be nominated for re-election, setting the stage for what pollsters say is at the moment an election too close to call.
Independent pollster John Zogby said there had been a point “where it was hard for me to see Obama losing; I’m not saying that anymore.”
Regarding the Jewish vote, Zogby told The Jewish Week that Obama received about 75 percent of the Jewish vote four years ago and that it today is at 68 percent, with the Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney at 18 percent. The rest are undecided.
“It’s not a good sign that there are undecided Jewish voters,” he said. “That’s a group that votes; that’s a group that has its mind made up. On the other hand 68 percent to 18 percent — it’s better to be at the 68 than at the 18.” (Other polls have Romney in the 28 percent range.)
Asked about Obama’s slight slippage in the Jewish community, Zogby said he found that “there are some conservative voices in the community that vote Israel and do not perceive the president as aligned with Israel entirely. By the same token, among that group there are some liberal Jews who are just not going to identify with Mitt Romney, even though he’s gung ho and pro-Likud. They’re still going to say on social issues: ‘Is this the guy I want?’ That’s going to be questionable, something to watch. The percentages still suggest that Obama gets almost what he needs.”
A July poll commissioned by J Street, which bills itself as the home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans, found about 7 percent undecided Jews, with Obama winning 68 percent of the Jewish vote. If the undecided break for Obama, he would capture about 72 percent of the Jewish vote, “in line with the historical average,” according to pollster Jim Gerstein.
But the comments last week of Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, raised questions for some about the president’s commitment to Israel when he was quoted as saying of a prospective Israeli attack on Iran: “I don’t want to be complicit if they choose to do it.”
Dempsey didn’t clarify what he meant by “complicit,” and neither did the Obama administration. But Colin Kahl, a former U.S. deputy assistant defense secretary for the Middle East and an adviser to the Obama campaign, told The Jewish Week that Dempsey was speaking for himself and that “one should not confuse that statement with where the president of the United States has been on this issue.”
“We are lockstep with Israel in terms of our commitment to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons,” he said. “We are lockstep in terms of taking unprecedented historic steps to ensure Israel’s security, and no issue receives more high-level attention from this president on the national security scene than the Iranian nuclear question.”
Kahl added that although Iran has made progress in its development of a nuclear weapon “it is not on the verge of getting nuclear weapons. We still have time — not an infinite amount of time — but time to resolve this peacefully. And I think everybody — including Israeli leaders — would agree that a peaceful diplomatic solution to this crisis is the most enduring one.”
Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, said his group’s polling found that for Jews “Iran is not a No. 1 voting issue.”
“I found out how little Iran was on the agenda,” he said. “Of course there is deep concern about nuclear weapons in the Middle East … [but] beating the drums of war is not necessarily the best way to counter that threat.”
Similarly, the J Street poll found, Israel came in tied for eighth in terms of pressing issues for Jews. Only 7 percent of Jews rated it their prime concern provided the candidate was not seen as hostile to Israel.
“Israel is a threshold issue for voters, but it is very easy to pass the threshold,” Gerstein said. “It’s when people feel Israel is singled out that support drops, so it is important to hold both sides [Israelis and Arabs] accountable.”
Jews, he said, are much more apt to vote for a candidate based on social issues, such as women’s rights and same-sex marriage.
Although Jews are small in number, their strength could be magnified in battleground states where the Jewish vote could swing an election, noted Lawrence Levy, dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University in Hempstead, L.I.
Should Romney win Florida by 1,000 votes, for instance, “you can be certain it was the Orthodox community that helped him win,” he said.
Dempsey’s comments came soon after the International Atomic Energy Agency reported that international sanctions against Iran had failed to compel it to stop its quest for a nuclear bomb. In fact, it said, the work is accelerating. Its stockpile of uranium enriched to 20 percent — just shy of enrichment needed for bomb-grade level — has reportedly grown from near zero to 200 kilograms in a year.
The cabinet of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is reportedly split over the wisdom of launching a unilateral attack on Iran. In recent days, Israeli officials have cut back on talk of war and hinted that such a move might be postponed if Obama spelled out the conditions under which the U.S. would go to war against Iran.
“The greater the resolve and the clearer the red line, the less likely we’ll have conflict,” Netanyahu was quoted as saying.
Ask Democrats here why the Obama administration appears to be having difficulty winning support among some in the Jewish community and the response is almost universal: they don’t know his true record on Israel.
“He has to tell them of the things he’s done — that he’s been the most supportive president towards Israel ever,” said Ackerman. “The relationship with Israel is at the greatest strength we’ve ever seen. The Israeli military, security and intelligence people will tell you that the relationship has never been better — they have told me that.”
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver of Manhattan agreed.
“He has to repeat his record regarding aid to Israel and military aid and support,” he said. “That’s all we have to do — and to convince the American people of that support over the next four years.”
Obama’s difficulty with some Jews, he said, is a matter of “style.”
“We must have as good a message as the Republicans have in terms of being able to attack. The campaign is starting this week and we have to be out there.”