Six months ago, President Obama sparked controversy when an open microphone caught him promising a Russian leader "more flexibility" after election day.
American voters wondering about U.S. policy toward Israel in a second Obama administration may find that incident reminiscent of the promises of post-election flexibility made by another Democratic president, in the 1940s, concerning the future of Mandatory Palestine.
In March of this year, outgoing Russian president Dmitry Medvedev met with President Obama to present Russia's objections to creation of a NATO missile defense system in Europe as a shield against Iranian attacks. Sitting together as they waited for a photo op to begin, the two did not realize their private remarks were being recorded.
"This is my last election," Obama was overheard assuring Medvedev. "After my election I will have more flexibility." Medvedev said he "understood" and would "transmit this information" to incoming Russian president Vladimir Putin.
The remark seemed to indicate that despite his public support for the missile defense system, President Obama may take a different position if re-elected.
Jewish voters would not have been pleased if they knew President Harry Truman intended to take different positions on the future of British-occupied Palestine before and after several elections in the 1940s.
The first was in 1945. That summer, with the British opposing establishment of a Jewish state and preventing Holocaust survivors from reaching the Holy Land, President Truman announced that he favored the immediate admission of 100,000 survivors to Palestine. In American Jewry's eyes, Truman seemed to be a champion of Zionism.
British Foreign Minister Ernest Bevin responded by proposing creation of an American-British commission to investigate the Palestine problem.
American Jewish leaders criticized the proposal, seeing it as a British tactic to indefinitely postpone Jewish statehood.
A crucial mayoral election in New York City was due to take place on November 6. Looking ahead to the upcoming 1948 presidential election and well aware of New York State's importance (it had the most electoral votes, with 47), Truman's advisers were anxious for a Democratic victory in the Big Apple. Thus Truman's position on the proposed Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry on Palestine: "no" before the election, "yes" afterwards.
Citing the “intense and growing agitation about the Palestine problem in the New York electoral campaign,” Secretary of State James Byrnes informed London that announcement of the commission had to wait until after the election, lest it “inflame” New York’s Jews to support the Republican candidate as a protest against Truman.
That wasn't the only instance of "post-election flexibility" in 1945. In October, just weeks before the election, Senators Robert Taft (R-Ohio) and Robert Wagner (D-New York) showed Truman and Byrnes a resolution they intended to introduce, calling for creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. They were told the administration did not object.
But when election day passed, it was a different story. On November 29, Byrnes shocked American Jewry by informing the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the president opposed the Taft-Wagner resolution. Truman was quoted as saying he opposed establishment of a "racial state," feared the U.S. would be pressured to send troops to intervene in Palestine, and considered the resolution harmful to the work of the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry.
Post-election "flexibility" was on display again the following year. With mid-term congressional elections approaching in the autumn of 1946, Truman and his political advisers feared Jewish voters in New York State would support Republican candidates if U.S. policy tilted against Zionism. In the lead-up to election day, the administration repeatedly rebuffed British appeals to take a more pro-Arab stance.
Much to London's chagrin, Truman went so far as to issue a statement on the eve of Yom Kippur that was widely understood as the administration's first official endorsement of the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine.
But in a post-election conversation between Truman and Bevin, another side of Truman emerged. At one point, according to Bevin's December 8, 1946 account of their talk, Bevin argued that with American help, the British could work out an Arab-Jewish agreement that would satisfy London (in other words, that would fall short of Jewish statehood).
Bevin noted Truman's response: "Mr. Truman agreed, saying he thought it would be easier for him to help now that the U.S. elections were over. Mr. Truman then went out of his way to explain how difficult it had been with so many Jews in New York. He spoke contritely of the awkward position he had been in..."
Truman's flip-flops on the Jewish statehood issue undoubtedly left some Jewish voters in 1948 wondering how a second-term Truman administration would treat Israel, and probably reduced his share of the Jewish vote that year.
Jimmy Carter's policies toward Israel in his first term aroused widespread Jewish concerns about what he might do in his second term, and contributed to the abandonment of Carter by 60% of Jewish voters in 1980 (Republican Ronald Reagan won 40% of the Jewish vote; third party candidate John Anderson won 20%).
Whether Jewish concerns about a "more flexible" foreign policy in a second-term Obama administration will affect Jewish voting behavior this November remains to be seen.