Five Things to Know This Week: Trump’s ‘Jexodus’ and an AIPAC Showdown
1. Do Republicans really have a political opening with “Jexodus”?
President Trump has been talking up the idea of “Jexodus,” a largely GOP-manufactured political vehicle aimed at winning over Jewish voters in the wake of the Ilhan Omar controversy. “Republicans are waiting with open arms,” Trump tweeted in one of a series of public comments suggesting that the Democratic Party is “anti-Jewish” and that Jewish voters should cross over and vote Republican.
Some in the Trump circle genuinely believe there could be an opening for a historic shift in Jewish American voting patterns, which currently lean heavily (more than 70 percent in 2016 presidential elections) Democratic and disapprove of Trump’s job performance by a 3:1 margin. Others point to a real sense of dismay among some Jewish voters at the way their party dealt with Omar and with the Congressional resolution condemning all forms of bigotry, including anti-Semitism.
But a Jexodus? That’s not in the cards. True, history has proven that there is a price to pay for adopting policies seen as too critical of Israel or showing insensitivity to the needs of the Jewish community. President Jimmy Carter went from garnering 71 percent of the Jewish vote in 1976 down to 45 percent four years later, in part because he was seen as applying undue pressure on Israel. Similarly, George H. W. Bush who won 35 percent of the Jewish vote in 1998, plunged to 11 percent in 1992 after a tumultuous four year relationships with the Jewish community and the pro-Israel lobby.
But experts and watchers of Jewish politics agree that 2020 is different. While many in the Jewish community support Trump’s decision to relocate the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and the decision to withdraw from the Iranian nuclear deal was also welcomed by some, these won’t carry a Jewish exodus from the Democratic Party. Why? Because Trump’s personality, conduct and his attitudes toward extremism, nationalism, Islamophobia and xenophobia are much bigger drivers for Jewish voters. Any other Republican president might have expected a small bump in Jewish support for moving the embassy or easing pressure on Israel, but Trump isn’t any other Republican president.
2. …Then why bother?
Trump likely knows the numbers don’t support his notion of a “Jexodus.” And if he doesn’t, his political advisers surely understand this is not an electoral battle worth fighting. So why embark on it?
One reason could relate to political geography. While a tiny minority of Jewish voters shifting their party allegiance won’t make a dent in major Jewish concentrations of New York, California or Illinois, it could help with the very tight races expected in Florida or Ohio. There, recent history has shown, even a handful of votes could make the difference between four years in the White House and a life of political irrelevance.
There are also the donors to think of. Trump has his relatively-small but highly dedicated Jewish donor base. Their support is reliable, but a drive focusing on Jewish voters and questioning the Democratic commitment to Israel and to fighting anti-Semitism could inject more energy and purpose, which are always useful when dealing with donors.
But more than anything else, the idea of framing Democrats as being anti-Jewish is seen by Trump and his team as a golden opportunity to counter and disarm any claim raised in the past three years regarding his attitudes toward the Jewish community and the threat of right-wing anti-Semitism. Democrats want to bring up his ties with the alt-right? Trump will respond by pointing to Rep. Ilhan Omar’s comments. If they bring up the Charlottesville comments? He’ll respond with Pelosi’s treatment of the anti-Semitism resolution. This tactic isn’t likely to move a single vote or convince one Jewish Democrat, but it sets a useful narrative for Trump as he goes after the nearly third of the Jewish community that is inclined to vote for him.
3. Ilhan Omar speaks out
In a Washington Post op-ed published on Sunday, Omar sought to clarify her positions on U.S. foreign policy and on the Middle East. It is a thoughtful article that is well-worth the read. Omar sidesteps any direct reference to her comments on dual loyalty or Jewish money in pro-Israel lobbying, but she does try to provide context and a framework to her criticism of Israel. Omar, as she comes across in her opinion piece, is nestled safely within the left-wing consensus: a supporter of a two-state solution, believer in the need for negotiated peace and a critic of West Bank settlements. Her framing of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a human rights issue may not be the way pro-Israel activists would like to discuss the issue, but is clearly in line with the progressive Democratic worldview.
4. Is it wise for Benny Gantz to address AIPAC?
Gantz, leader of the newly-formed Blue and White party and the only potential threat to Netanyahu in the upcoming elections, will address AIPAC’s policy conference next week. Leaving Israel for a couple of days two weeks before the elections is a risky move, but Gantz believes he has something to gain from speaking to 18,000 pro-Israel American advocates. These advantages include positioning himself as an equal to Netanyahu, who will speak to the conference the next day, and potentially winning some points by distinguishing himself from Bibi on issues AIPAC members care about: religious pluralism in Israel and rejection of Kahanist racist parties in Israel’s political system.
But Gantz will be taking a big chance. Netanyahu is a hard act to follow, especially speaking to an American Jewish crowd. His mastery of English, coupled with a perfect accent and public speaking skills honed in decades of experience, are unparalleled. Gantz, on the other hand, spent his life in military briefing rooms and field conversations with fellow generals. His fresh style could swoop the crowd, but could also come across as pale on Netanyahu’s home turf.
5. J Street wants to turn Bibi’s friendship with Trump to a liability
Netanyahu has made his friendship with Trump into a major campaign issue. From huge banners featuring him next to the U.S. president to repeated stump speech lines on how his unique relationship with Trump changed the course of U.S. policy toward Israel, Netanyahu has made clear he views these close ties as a political boon. Now J Street, the left-leaning pro-Israel lobby, is out to prove the opposite. In a video ad put out Monday, the group shows the two leaders, stating that Netanyahu and Trump are “closer than you think” and that they “stoke fear and division and undermine the very pillars of democracy.” J Street’s video weaves together Trump and Netanyahu’s strikingly similar attacks on the judicial system and the media. J Street’s point? Americans who took to the streets against Trump for making these comments should now “speak out when Netanyahu does the same.”