Israel Needs to Fix Relations with US Jews

Most American Jews are still Democrats, but increasingly those Jewish Democrats are unaffiliated, assimilated and disconnected from Israel.

Gedalyah Reback ,

Barack Obama, Binyamin Netanyahu
Barack Obama, Binyamin Netanyahu
Miriam Alster/Flash 90

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's campaign did not kick into high gear until the final few days. It might be true that if not for the fall in the polls that occurred one week ago, Bibi would not have detected his slip among the electorate. His campaign before this week was perceived as very unfocused and incredibly weak.

"The campaign for Likud became much stronger in the end," says Hank Sheinkopf, President of Sheinkopf Communications and former campaign adviser to President Bill Clinton. "They put a final emphasis on security and the argument worked."

The Prime Minister barely campaigned on issues related to the economy and day-to-day life, a common theme in American elections that actually made headlines in Israel because of how it had seemingly stolen the limelight from classic security issues.

"When the conversation turned to security, the right coalesced around him," said Sheinkopf. "Putting on my academic hat, the country is still trying to find another type of leadership. The bigger parties tend to be more fratricidal when it comes to smaller parties in their blocs, although the left is far more splintered than the right."

The next Netanyahu government will face an inevitably difficult relationship with the Obama Administration and the Democratic Party. When asked if the Netanyahu government should look to build relationships with certain wings in that party, Sheinkopf said Israel's strategic calculus in the US would have to be much more complex than that.

"The problem faced with the Democrats is for one that he (Netanyahu) is much more of a Republican to them. When it comes to US Jews, it's almost heretical to be anything other than liberal on most things."

Sheinkopf, who joins many other commentators who note the caveats and nuances of the 2013 Pew Research Center's report on American Jewry, says Israel's support among unaffiliated Jews is dwindling.

"A more serious problem has a great deal to do with the American Jewish population. The intermarriage and non-affiliation rate are higher than in the past, while among affiliated Jews they are becoming less and less Democratic. The unaffiliated are less connected and less supportive of Israel" from the outset, he said.

He notes many American Jews were not supportive of Netanyahu's assertive visit to the US by a wide margin, and that contrary to the assumptions of many pro-Israel activists, "Israel is not the #1 priority in these people's thinking. More affiliated Jews are more religious and they are more Republican."

"Here comes Bibi, who is a nationalist by any measure and very protective of his country, who typifies the 'New Israeli' and is very direct. It's completely different."

The goal does have to be restoring or reinvigorating a bipartisan approach that "is more disciplined" in Sheinkopf's words.

He highlighted not merely the personal relationship between Barack Obama and Binyamin Netanyahu, but between the Prime Minister and Secretary of State John Kerry.

"It is more a conflict between Netanyahu and Kerry," he said, noting that even if Obama is giving the orders, it is Kerry at the wheel.

"Kerry is the face they see in the Middle East and has been the front man for this agreement with Iran which the Prime Minister has been very public in opposition to. He is the face of foreign policy."

Sheinkopf does not want people to misinterpret him, however. Having worked with the Democratic Party for a long time, he feels confident in saying that personally John Kerry "is a well-meaning person who has been friend of Jews and Israel throughout his career.”

"But he is the front man of a perceivably failed foreign policy and presiding over a shift of both American power and influence that some see as weakening the US."

Kerry is currently in charge of a State Department with strained relationships across the Middle East while pursuing a risky rapprochement with Iran. Among a pile of issues Kerry has, is that his constant pressure and inconsistent schedules for diplomatic goals have helped alienate Israelis. This is not something unique to Israel, as he has overseen foreign policy gaffes with Egypt and Saudi Arabia also, on the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran respectively. Just recently, he angered Turkey for suggesting the US could reconcile with Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria.

He says that ultimately, Israel needs to concern itself again with the relationship it has with American Jews.

"Most American Jews abide by the '11th Commandment' to vote, then Commandment 11.a. to vote Democratic. Center-right Israelis don't reflect that with American Jews, so the relationship needs work."