WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama and his Republican opponents are clashing over U.S. policy toward Israel as each side jockeys for support from Jewish voters, who could be critical in the 2012 election.
Aiming to cast Obama as unfairly harsh toward Israel and soft on the Palestinians, Republican presidential hopefuls Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich have urged the president to fire his ambassador to Belgium. The envoy, Howard Gutman, had said that some anti-Semitism stemmed from tensions between Israel and the Palestinians; Romney and Gingrich say his remarks unfairly blamed Israel.
The White House says Obama has a strong record on support for Israel, and quickly fired back with a statement condemning "anti-Semitism in all its forms." The State Department said Gutman would remain in his job.
Republicans also challenged Obama's assertion at a fundraiser last week that "this administration has done more in terms of the security of the state of Israel than any previous administration." Romney said Obama has "repeatedly thrown Israel under the bus" — an accusation the Republican National Committee repeated on Monday.
Firing back, Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz called Romney's comments "outrageous" and questioned his own policies. The White House cited military aid to Israel and support at the United Nations, and pointed to statements from Israeli officials backing up Obama's assertion.
The fiery debate probably will continue Wednesday when the Republican presidential candidates attend a Washington forum hosted by the Republican Jewish Coalition.
Obama campaign officials say they will be ready to respond. And the next day, Jewish leaders will be at the White House for briefings on Israel and a Hanukkah party, followed by an Obama speech next week to an expected audience of nearly 6,000 at a conference of the Union for Reform Judaism.
Such attention is all being paid in recognition that Jewish voters, although comprising only 2 percent of the electorate nationwide, are an important part of Obama's base and could make the difference in battleground states including Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Nevada in a close election. Moreover, the Jewish community is an important source of donations, and Obama campaign supporters want to maintain that support as much as Republicans want to chip away at it.
"This campaign takes the Jewish vote very, very seriously," said Ira Forman, the Obama campaign Jewish outreach director. "I'm confident this will be the most comprehensive effort in presidential campaign history."
The White House outreach has increased since May when Obama caused a furor by suggesting Israel's 1967 borders, with agreed-upon land swaps, as a basis for resuming negotiations toward a two-state solution with the Palestinians. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected the '67 borders as indefensible and largely disregarded Obama's emphasis on land swaps to account for current conditions.
Republicans seized on the dispute. And while Obama supporters say his argument was widely mischaracterized, damage was done. Now the Obama campaign and its backers say they are determined to respond rapidly to such criticism in the future.
"We are trying to responsibly respond to all of these unsubstantiated or false allegations, but there are so many of them, and they are so frequently recited despite the fact that the people who are spreading them have to know that they're false, that it's hard to keep up with them," said Alan Solow, an Obama fundraiser and longtime associate.
The effort involves using surrogates including Vice President Joe Biden, and use of the president's own time in public appearances and private talks with donors and religious leaders, such as a conference call between Obama and rabbis ahead of the start of the Jewish New Year in September.
The Obama campaign also is going on the offensive against Republicans. In conversations about the Jewish vote, Obama backers are quick to bring up comments by Romney, Gingrich and Rick Perry at a debate last month suggesting they would start foreign aid for all countries at zero. Obama supporters say that would imperil funding for Israel, even though the candidates also sought to affirm their support for the Jewish state.
Democratic candidates typically enjoy a big electoral advantage among Jewish voters. Obama won 78 percent of the Jewish vote in 2008, compared with 21 percent for Republican John McCain.
But Gallup has found that Obama's approval rating among Jews has fallen from 83 percent in January 2009 to 54 percent in just a few months ago. Still, that figure is much higher than his overall 41 percent approval rating, and the drop-off in support was about in line with other voter groups.
Sid Dinerstein, chairman of the Palm Beach County Republican Party in Florida, predicted that Obama would be limited to around 60 percent of the Jewish vote in 2012. Obama backers say that will not happen, but it could mean a potentially decisive difference of tens of thousands of votes in crucial states.
A candidate's position on Israel may not be the top issue for most Jewish voters, who like others are more motivated by jobs and the economy. But it is important to many, and Republicans see an opening, given the consternation over Obama's 1967 borders speech, his administration's rebukes of Israel for building settlements in disputed areas, and a recent incident in which Obama was overheard appearing to endorse criticism of Netanyahu from French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
"The reality is that the Jewish community understands that on a number of critical issues this administration has undermined not only the U.S.-Israel relationship, but has made Israel more vulnerable," said Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition.
Brooks points to the recent upset in New York's special election to replace Democratic Rep. Anthony Weiner, in which Republican Bob Turner won in the heavily Jewish district. Brooks says this was a warning to Obama about his stance on Israel. Obama supporters say other factors were at play, including the heavily Orthodox and more conservative makeup of the district.Comment on this story
But even strong supporters are disappointed that Obama has not yet traveled to Israel in his capacity as president, after delivering a major speech in Cairo early in his administration. An Israel trip had been rumored to be in the works but seems unlikely to happen before the 2012 election.
Democratic Rep. Steve Rothman said he remains hopeful a trip will happen in the next year.
"No president has been perfect on every subject, though history will record that Obama has been the best president for Israel when it comes to military and intelligence support," said Rothman.