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OPINION / Bernie Sanders

Do Jewish votes matter in the US election?

Increasing numbers of US politicians conclude that distancing from Israel does little to harm their political standing.

by Mark Perry

While it is not now generally known, it's likely that the single most important day for the United States' standing in the Middle East took place nearly 70 years ago, on May 12, 1948.

In a White House meeting on that Wednesday, President Harry Truman told his Secretary of State, George Marshall, that he'd decided the US would recognise the State of Israel, whose creation would be announced two days later by David Ben-Gurion.

Marshall was enraged. The retired general, admired as the architect of the US' victory in World War II, told Truman his decision was a mistake. Support for Israel would offend the US' Arab allies, require constant US military support and entangle the nation in a controversial alliance.

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The US needed to take a more even-handed approach, he argued, then irritably noted that Truman wanted to recognise Israel not because it was good policy, but because it would gain him Jewish votes - which he needed to win the next election.

Then and now

Marshall was right - and he's been right ever since. Not only did Harry Truman's recognition of Israel gain him the vast majority of Jewish votes in 1948, Jewish-Americans remained steady supporters of the Democratic Party through the next 16 national elections, from 1952 to 2012.

Of course, it's not simply support for Israel that has made the majority of American Jews Democrats, it's that the Democratic Party reflected, and reflects, their secular and progressive values.

The US' transformation from Israel's erstwhile ally to sometime friend is far from complete. But the transformation marked by Sanders' views - and the public's growing support for them - is significant, perhaps even revolutionary, even though it took seven decades to reach.

Even so, the Democratic Party has carefully cultivated its support among Jewish voters - as well as pro-Israel Jewish fundraisers - by stridently supporting Israel at every turn and casting votes that have made Israel the largest recipient of the US foreign aid.

But now, albeit slowly, that is changing.

Just as historians cite May 12, 1948 as the day when the US became Israel's most important ally, future historians are likely to mark March 17, 2010 as the day when the US began to rethink its relationship with Israel.

On that day, General David Petraeus told a Congressional committee that the perception of "US favouritism" for Israel in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was sparking "anti-American sentiment" in the Arab world. Like Marshall, Petraeus implied that the US needed to take a more even-handed approach in the region.

While the Petraeus statement spurred vicious denunciations from the US' most prominent pro-Israel voices, the damage was done - and marked the beginning of a distinct erosion in US-Israeli ties.

Over the next six years, increasing numbers of US policymakers concluded that distancing themselves from Israel would do little to harm their political standing.

No longer essential

All of this was bad news for the US' supporters of Israel, but worse was yet to come. In 2012, Truman's bedrock belief, that Democrats needed Jewish votes to win the White House, was disproven.

In 2012, Barack Obama won 69 percent of American Jews' vote - an overwhelming majority.

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But that number doesn't tell the whole story. Obama outpolled Republican Mitt Romney in heavily Jewish New York by almost two million votes - more than New York's total Jewish voting population.

Put another way, Obama could have lost every single Jewish vote in New York and still won the state - and the national election.

The same was not true for Florida, where Obama needed the Jewish vote to eke out a small majority. But here's the key: Even had Obama lost every single vote in Florida (and not just the Jewish vote) he would have still won the election.

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This new political arithmetic sent tremors through the American Jewish community. It was now obvious that while the US Jews - most of them left-leaning progressives - might need the Democratic Party, it was not so clear that the Democratic Party needed them.

This conclusion was reinforced by worsening relations between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and by Netanyahu's support for pro-Israeli Republicans. A Pew Research poll the next year seemed to bear this out (PDF).

Losing support

As the US support for Israel was waning, so too was support for Israel among American Jews.

Among secular Jews - the core of the Democratic Party's Jewish voting bloc - caring about Israel ranked fifth as "an essential Jewish trait" (43 percent) - right before "having a good sense of humour" (42 percent).

Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders, right, and Hillary Clinton during a Democratic presidential primary debate [AP]

In large part, it was this political reality that spurred on candidate Bernie Sanders to criticise Israel in his April 15 televised debate with Hillary Clinton.

Sanders - who spent time on an Israeli kibbutz - characterised Israel's 2014 attack on Gaza as "disproportionate", intoning that if the US wanted to "pursue justice and peace" in the region, then it would have to realise that "Netanyahu is not right all the time". The statement brought raucous cheers from the audience, including a shouted admonition: "Free Palestine."

The statement was significant, not least because a number of Clinton supporters dismissed Sanders as a late convert to the Palestinian cause.

The Vermont senator, they said, was simply making a political calculation. But that was the whole point: Sanders calculated that not only would his statement not cost him votes, it was likely gain him some.

The US' transformation from Israel's erstwhile ally to sometime friend is far from complete. But the transformation marked by Sanders' views - and the public's growing support for them - is significant, perhaps even revolutionary, even though it took seven decades to reach.

But then, to paraphrase Churchill, America always does the right thing - after trying everything else first.

Mark Perry is a Washington DC-based foreign policy analyst and author of Talking to Terrorists: Why America Must Engage with its Enemies.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.



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