Rick Perry has been very interested in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict lately. On the heels of editorials in both the Wall Street Journal and the Jerusalem Post criticizing the Obama Administration’s policies in the Middle East, Perry held a press conference Tuesday morning accusing the president of a “policy of appeasement” toward the Palestinian Authority.
Perry’s interest in Israel is longstanding, and he’s defended the country’s foreign policy before, but not so frequently or vocally. Is he hoping to win over Jewish voters or is it another pitch to win over evangelicals?
As Texas agriculture commissioner in the 1990s, Perry started the Texas-Israel Exchange. In 2009, he traveled to Israel to receive a “Defender of Jerusalem” award. That same year, he told a reporter, “I have a special affection for that country, for the nation of Israel, a remarkable people,” comparing Masada, the sight of a famed battle between the Jews and the Roman Empire, to the Alamo.
Perry’s press conference on Tuesday came as the Obama administration tries to stop a U.N. vote on Palestinian statehood this week. Obama is slated to talk to the U.N. General Assembly on Wednesday.
Furthemore, Obama’s support with Jewish voters is dropping, some say illustrated by an unlikely win last week in the heavily Democratic and Jewish New York 9th district special election contest to replace Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.). During Perry’s appearance in New York on Tuesday, newly-minted Empire State GOP Rep. Bob Turner was by his side.
While polling finds that the economy is the main reason for Obama’s drop in Jewish support, many Republicans have seized on the results of last week’s special election as a sign that Israel could become a wedge issue with Jews in swing states in 2012.
“Whoever our Republican nominee is I think is going to have the ability to go into the Jewish community and provide a very strong argument and a very strong contrast” with Obama, said Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition.
A top Perry strategist insisted following Perry’s speech that nothing had changed in terms of the governor’s strategy.
“Consistent, principled positions that don't change depending on what election one might be seeking will always do better amongst all voters,” said Perry strategist Dave Carney. “Our mission is to demonstrate for voters that we can take on Obama on the big issues of the day.”
Answering questions after his remarks Tuesday, Perry framed his Israel advocacy as part of his religion. “As a Christian, I have a clear directive to support Israel,” he said. “As an American and a Christian I will stand with Israel.”
That explicit religious appeal is the sort of comment that could displease Jewish voters. Perry’s hawkish Israel views will likely win him more support among evangelical Christians, many of whom support Zionism for their own religious reasons.
Just before becoming a presidential candidate, the governor held an unabashedly Christian prayer gathering in Houston, “The Response.” A few days ago he spoke at Liberty University, the school founded by evangelical fundamentalist Jerry Fallwell.
Even some Republican Jews were turned off by those events, a sign that Perry might struggle with GOP Jewish donors, who sources say have largely lined up behind former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney already.
Jonathan Tobin, the editor of the neo-conservative Jewish magazine Commentary, wrote earlier this week that “most American Jews fear evangelicals more than Hamas or Hezbollah,” adding that Perry “could send the vast majority of Jews fleeing back to the Democrats, Israel.”
Perry’s social conservativism could also hurt him with Jewish voters.
While more socially conservative Orthodox Jews are the fastest-growing demographic in the Jewish community, the vast majority of Jews still oppose Perry on abortion and same-sex marriage.
And Jews still make a small population in swing states key to the general elecion. Only 7 percent of Jews in Pittsburgh are Orthodox and only 5 percent of Jews in Cincinnati, Ohio are Orthodox; only 3 percent of the Jews in Palm Beach County are Orthodox, according to the Jewish Databank. (About a third of the Jews in New York’s 9th district are Orthodox.)
Jews aren’t the only constituency in America invested in the Israeli state. According to Pew polling, sixty-four percent of white evangelical Protestants and 62 percent of conservative Republicans say helping Israel should be an important U.S. policy goal, compared with only 34 percent of mainline Protestants and 51 percent of all Republicans.
Fallwell, like Perry was an ardent supporter of Israel. So is evangelical pastor John Hagee, who spoke at Perry’s Prayer gathering.
“I don’t think the focus is on Jewish voters” right now, said Tevi Troy, who served as liason to the Jewish community in the Bush White House. “There are a lot of Americans outside the Jewish community, including but not limited to evangelicals, who feel very strongly about Israel.”
In a GOP primary with Romney, Perry probably doesn’t have to worry much about the evangelical vote. But his outspoken defense of Israel will only endear him more to those voters.
Over a quarter of Americans are evangelical Protestants, while less 2 percent of the country is Jewish. Moreover, evangelicals are far more influential in Republican primaries. Exit polling found that in 2008, sixty percent of caucus voters in Iowa and primary voters in South Carolina were evangelicals.
One danger for Perry is that his grandstanding on Israel exposes some holes in his foreign policy knowledge. As the the Post’s Glenn Kessler wrote yesterday , two of the three preconditions Perry demanded of Palestinians were met decades ago. The third has only been an issue since March of 2010.
2012 rival Rick Santorum (R)on Tuesday quipped, “I’ve forgotten more about Israel than Rick Perry knows about Israel.”