By Ciro Scotti If Bill Clinton was the first black President -- a moniker he relished -- then George W. Bush is the first Jewish President. After first disengaging from the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations and refusing to even lay eyes on Yasser Arafat, Bush went on to give Israeli Prime Minister and best Mideast buddy Ariel Sharon virtual carte blanche in his crackdown on the suicide-bombing Palestinans and then followed the advice of his fiercely pro-Israel neocon advisers and went to war in Iraq.
Matthew Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, calls Bush "the most pro-Israel President in history." And on the Republican Jewish Coalition Web site, former New York Mayor Ed Koch, a Democrat, writes that he's voting for a Republican for President for the first time in his life because "George W. Bush has amazed me. Bush 41, the father, was not particularly good on [the Israel] issue. I do not believe he was anti-Semitic but his Secretary of State, James Baker, perhaps summed up the attitude prevailing in that Administration when he said, 'F--- the Jews. They don't vote for us anyway.'"
Now the FBI is investigating whether a Pentagon official in the office of neocon Defense Under Secretary Douglas J. Feith, identified by The Washington Post as Lawrence A. Franklin, passed classified information about American policy toward Iran to Israel through a pro-Israel lobbying group. The obvious question about the probe, which has been reportedly going on for a year but was first reported by CBS last week, is this: As details come out, will Bush's tilt toward Israel hurt him in November? The less obvious question is: Will the scandal help him even more with some Jewish voters?
"ONE OF US." Certainly the Administration isn't downplaying the vigorous support of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the lobbying group implicated in the spy scandal. At a pre-convention event on Sunday afternoon co-sponsored by AIPAC (which vehemently denies allegations that it passed sensitive documents to Israel) and attended by almost 2,000 members of the New York Jewish community, the Republicans rolled out the big guns: Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, and former Mayor Rudy Giuliani. UJA Federation of New York President Morris W. Offit introduced Bush campaign chief Ken Mehlman by saying: "We are honored that President Bush's campaign is being managed by one of us."
Almost since Inauguration Day 2001, Bush has been a lot like a kid with a piggy bank. He has been putting in a few pennies worth of backing here, a dime's worth of support there, and hoping that on Election Day when he busts the ceramic porker open, he'll have just enough new voters behind him to buy four more years.
This strategy of political incrementalism has been pursued almost religiously (but, hey, what hasn't been?) by the White House. That's why Bush comes across as an 18-year-old on Levitra with his wooing of the American Jewish community. So with 63 days to go before Election Day -- to paraphrase a famous Ed Koch line-- "How's he doin'?"
IN THEIR HANDS? Before the spy probe broke in the papers, some of the answers were on a yacht-for-rent bobbing in the Hudson at the Chelsea Piers dock on the night of Aug. 26. That's where The Israel Project, a two-year-old nonprofit devoted to promoting a positive image of Israel in America, was holding the first of several events scheduled for Republican Convention week.
Between bites of sushi, Brooks of the Republican Jewish Coalition delivered the partisan answer, predicting that Bush would do substantially better than the 19% of the Jewish vote that he captured in 2000. The surprise, he says, is that "the President is going to do particularly well among seniors because they are much more Israel-centric" than younger Jewish voters. In the swing state of Florida (where Jews account for around 5% of the electorate), if enough older and traditionally Democratic voters cross over to Bush, he muses, "the Jewish community could very well decide the election."
A less biased answer to how Bush is doing is given by David Borowich, the 34-year-old chief operating officer of tech startup Optinetix. "The Jewish community had very low expectations of Bush...but I think he has delivered for America and for the Jewish people," says Borowich, who has dual Israeli and American citizenship. But, while he thinks either Bush or Kerry would be acceptable, Borowich says a lot of Jewish Americans are asking themselves: "Why have we always been voting Democratic?"
GUT FEELINGS. The leader of a leading nonpartisan Jewish-American umbrella organization, who declines to be identified, says while it's a mistake to look at the Jewish vote as even close to monolithic, in broad terms, American Jews divide up between those for whom the security of Israel is of primary concern and those for whom social issues such abortion and stem-cell research are paramount. And, as for every American, he adds, economic performance is an overarching issue.
This wise man's assessment is that while he sees Bush as "a simple man without a great intellect," he believes the President has a visceral feeling about the need to protect Israel. And he says, as the country as whole has become more conservative, so have Jews. His Aug. 26 "snapshot" is that on Election Day in November, the Jewish electorate will split 75%-25% between John Kerry and Bush, with Bush getting a maximum of 30%.
That assessment is at odds slightly but significantly with a poll conducted in July by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research for the National Jewish Democratic Council and The Solomon Project: It found likely Jewish voters choosing Kerry over Bush by 75%-22%.
Still, it's a problem for Kerry if the wise man's hunch is closer to reality and a larger-than-expected number of Jewish voters go for Bush. Scotti is BusinessWeek's senior editor for government and sports business and offers his views in A Not-So-Neutral Corner, only for BusinessWeek Online