QUEENS, NY - New York’s most successful lawmakers may be among the most liberal in the country on many issues, but when it comes to Israel, any skilled politician knows that you tack hard right every time. That was certainly the case for Anthony Weiner. And Democrat David Weprin, running to replace him in Tuesday’s special election, is no exception: an Orthodox Jew, he’s visited Israel many times and takes an unfailingly hawkish stance on negotiations with the Palestinian Authority.
“I think going back to pre-‘67 borders as a starting point is a mistake, it’s not a defensible point of view,” he told reporters on Monday. “Israel right now from a security point of view doesn’t have a negotiating partner, certainly while the Palestinian Authority is affiliating with Hamas. I’ve been very vocal on that. I think my record on Israel is pretty solid.”
Yet Weprin is getting battered by his non-Jewish opponent over Israel at every turn and anecdotal and statistical evidence alike suggests the issue is gaining traction in the district, a third of which is Jewish and many of whom are ultra-Orthodox. The latest poll by Democratic PPP shows that 37% of likely voters consider Israel “very important” to their vote — and they’re breaking 71-22 for Turner.
Turner has accomplished this by finessing the Israel question into a broader referendum on President Obama, who is unpopular for a number of reasons in the district, his perceived lack of enthusiasm for Israel being one of them. It’s an argument that virtually eliminates Weprin from the discussion who, by Turner’s own admission, is barely distinguishable from him on the topic.
“On this particular issue, it’s not about my position or his, which are pretty much identical,” he told reporters on Monday. “It’s the president’s position. You’re either with the party or you’re against it.”
The most effective messenger for this notion has been former New York City mayor Ed Koch (D). While he has endorsed Republicans in the past, he nonetheless garnered serious attention after he decided to back Turner in July. Koch’s argument, which has been thoroughly absorbed by numerous Turner supporters, is that the heavily Jewish 9th district presents a unique opportunity to do what Scott Brown did for health care and put the scare into the White House over Israel.
“David Weprin could not be an effective messenger,” he wrote in an endorsement in the Huffington Post. “His election would be viewed by President Obama as simply that of another Democrat elected to office in what is one of the largest Jewish constituencies in the nation and accepting of the president, notwithstanding criticism of his positions.’
Now before we go further, it’s worth noting that the big Obama position that Turner supporters overwhelmingly cite the most when discussing Israel — his support for negotiations based on 1967 borders plus land swaps — is historically unremarkable. George W. Bush made similar calls throughout his administration. Israeli Prime Ministers Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak both made similar statements.
But Obama has had an unusually difficult relationship with Israel’s current leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, which makes things appear more dire from the outside. And for many voters, his rhetoric on Israel sets off an innate feeling, a deep suspicion, that something just isn’t right.
Rudy Giuliani articulated this line of attack well in Queens on Monday, where he addressed reporters with Turner. Speaking from a podium in Forest Hills, he repeatedly slammed Obama even for expressing the idea of a Palestinian statehood.
“Why would American want to create another terrorist state?” he said. He condemned the Palestinian Authority as unworthy of American negotiations, especially its late leader Yasser Arafat, who he labeled “a murderer, a killer, an assassin.”
“There’s no question that President Obama needs to be sent a very strong message that he can’t consider the Palestinian Authority and Israel as moral equivalents,” he said.
I asked Giuliani afterward what made Obama so uniquely terrible on Israel versus, say, Bill Clinton, who is very popular in Israel and famously pushed both sides to reach a peace deal at the negotiation table. He replied that “[Obama] has gone much further than Clinton in embracing the Palestinian Authority as a legitimate organization as opposed to one where the pressure should be on the Palestinian Authority to clean out their terrorism.” But didn’t Clinton literally legitimize the Palestinian Authority, by helping to facilitate the Oslo Accords that created it? Giuliani responded with a more emotional message.
“All you have to do is go to Israel, where Obama’s approval rating is 12%,” he said. “They have a feeling that for the first time in their history, if push comes to shove, they’re not sure they can count on the American president. They didn’t have that feeling with Clinton and they certainly didn’t have it with Bush.”
One Weprin volunteer, Simon Pelman of Kew Gardens, told me that he supported his candidate in no small part because of his consistency on Israel and his suspicion that Turner’s dedication to the cause is less than convincing. Nonetheless, he said that though he supported Obama in 2008, he would not vote for him now because of the Israel issue. He told me Koch’s endorsement had made a big impact on voters in his neighborhood.
“There’s a very negative feeling about Obama in the district,” he said. “We’ve had presidents always supportive [of Israel], but now we have people equivocating.”
There’s no question that Israel is playing a role in the race, but it is still an open question just how big of one. Analysts aren’t all as sold on the Israel angle as PPP either. Siena pollster Steve Greenberg asked voters in a survey to name the most important reason for their vote out of five choices, including party, position on entitlements, whether they were supported by a trusted source, their position on the economy, and finally their position on Israel. Only 7% of voters picked Israel — and just 16% of Jewish voters.
Yossi Gestetner, a political consultant who specializes in the Orthodox and Hasidic vote in New York, told me that Israel was key but likely wouldn’t be decisive in NY-9 without a perfect storm of unrelated factors dragging down Weprin as well.
“It can in this specific race be the tipping point, but only due to Weprin’s arrogance with Same-Sex Marriage, and Obama’s overall weakness on domestic/economic issues,” he said.
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.