Many U.S. Jewish leaders are unnerved both by the new Iran nuclear agreement and the public falling out between President Barack Obama and his Israeli counterpart, developments that are creating a rift in the durable alliance between Jews and the Democratic Party in the run-up to the 2016 elections.
Worried that Iran might still develop a nuclear weapon despite the accord announced Thursday, the Jewish leaders say they feel torn between an Obama administration that has pressed hard for a deal and an Israeli government that has repeatedly warned that Iran is a grave threat to the Jewish state and can’t be trusted to abandon its nuclear ambitions.
A group of Jewish Democratic House members met with White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough in his office last week and cautioned that for them to help “sell a very unpopular [Iran nuclear] deal to our constituents,” Mr. Obama must “increase his popularity with our constituents,” said a Democratic congressman involved in the meeting.
Republicans have begun making moves to try to capitalize on this unease, hoping to peel away Jewish votes and campaign contributions that have historically skewed Democratic.
Republican congressional leaders have been critical of the proposed Iran deal, and the GOP’s likely 2016 presidential contenders have largely opposed it. It isn’t clear congressional Republicans have a way to block any final deal, and experts warn that even if a Republican wins the White House in 2016, it won’t be as easy to wipe off the books an international agreement as campaign rhetoric may suggest.
Hillary Clinton, the presumed Democratic front-runner, has voiced guarded support for the Iran deal, casting it as “an important step toward a comprehensive agreement that would prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.” Many Jewish leaders have said that if Mrs. Clinton, who enjoys strong ties to the Jewish community, becomes the party’s nominee, that would help salve the discontent with the White House.
The lawmakers who met with Mr. McDonough last week also urged that Mr. Obama soften his tone toward Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and avoid “getting into a daily argument with” him, one participant said.
After Mr. Netanyahu won re-election, White House officials criticized him for moving farther to the right during the campaign by warning about Arab Israelis flocking to the polls and dropping his support for a two-state solution to a Middle East peace agreement.
A White House spokesman said Mr. Netanyahu had used “divisive rhetoric” and cautioned that the U.S. would “reassess” its options toward the Middle East conflict. Mr. Netanyahu later reaffirmed his commitment to a two-state solution and apologized for his comments on Arab Israeli voters.
U.S. Rep. Nita Lowey (D., N.Y.), who attended the meeting with Mr. McDonough, said in an interview: “I was extremely disturbed by some of the overheated rhetoric that came out of the administration following the [Israeli] election. I conveyed directly to the White House that it’s time to dial back the temperature and affirm and strengthen the U.S.-Israeli relationship.”
The White House on Friday referred to a news briefing last week by press secretary Josh Earnest, who cited past statements by Mr. Obama that his relationship with Mr. Netanyahu is “businesslike.” Mr. Earnest also said the U.S. will “keep an open line of communication” with Israeli leaders.
Although a tiny fraction of the overall vote, Jewish voters have long been solid piece of the Democratic coalition, and Jewish donors an important cog in their campaign financial machinery.
Democratic President Harry Truman recognized Israel on the day it was established in 1948, earning him the gratitude of American Jews beholden to the new state created in the shadow of the Holocaust. A study of Jewish Americans by the Pew Research Center in 2013 showed that 70% of Jews were Democrats or leaned that way.
Mr. Obama has largely fared well with this constituency. In his 2012 election victory, he received 69% of the Jewish vote, exit polls showed. Four years earlier, he captured 78% of Jewish voters.
Yet Jewish sentiment appears to be shifting, creating what Republicans see as a potential opening. About 87% of Jewish voters supported Democratic House candidates in the 2006 midterm elections. In the 2014 election, that figure had dropped to 66%, according to Pew.
“At this moment in time, many American Jews who have consistently voted Democratic are beginning to waver in that support, because they’ve felt the bedrock relationship between Israel and this administration has been severely shaken,” said Rabbi Howard Buechler of the Dix Hills Jewish Center in New York.
Republican campaign operatives believe that a shift in Jewish partisan loyalties could make a difference in parts of Florida and the Philadelphia and Chicago suburbs, potentially influencing key Senate races.
A new email petition sent out by the National Republican Senatorial Committee points to the rift between Messrs. Obama and Netanyahu, urging people to sign a petition and “Tell Obama it’s now time to stand with Israel and Prime Minister Netanyahu.”
Rep. Steve Israel, a Jewish Democrat from New York, rejected the notion that Republicans will gain inroads with Jewish voters amid the latest turmoil in the Middle East. He said that in talks with constituents, he has been hearing “deep resentment at how Israel has been used as a political football by Republicans.”
Still, some Democratic fundraisers worry that the dust-up between the U.S. and Israeli leaders could spell trouble in 2016.
Alan Kessler, a longtime Democratic fundraiser based in Philadelphia, said Republican campaign operatives have told him they want to bring GOP candidates into synagogues to meet with Jewish voters. Mr. Kessler also said he worried that Pennsylvania’s Republican Sen. Pat Toomey might have an easier time of it in running for re-election in 2016 because he is seen as a steadfast supporter of Israel.
“It could make things more difficult” for a Democratic challenger, Mr. Kessler said.
Other Democrats worry that Jewish voters might seek reprisals against the approximately four dozen Democratic House and Senate members who skipped Mr. Netanyahu’s address to a joint session of Congress last month. Some said they boycotted the address because they saw it as a breach of protocol, with Mr. Obama not adequately consulted beforehand.
Leonard Barrack, a longtime Democratic fundraiser, said: “Many fellow Democrats of the Jewish faith were appalled” that lawmakers didn’t show Mr. Netanyahu “the respect and courtesy of being in the audience.”
Republicans shouldn’t expect a wholesale shift in Jewish allegiance, other Jewish leaders say. Although Jewish voters may see Republicans as stalwart supporters of Israel, the party’s views on social issues repel some of them, the leaders add.
Rabbi Steven Moss of the B’nai Israel Reform Temple in Oakdale, N.Y., said: “Some of the politicians who come out very strongly in support of Israel propose certain social legislation and economic legislation that the Jewish community might not be comfortable with.”