x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Republican rivals in Florida vie to be Israel's best friend

Support of large Jewish community in swing state will also be crucial in November's presidential election

Supporters cheer Newt Gingrich during a Republican Jewish Coalition rally in Delray Beach, Florida, on Friday.
Supporters cheer Newt Gingrich during a Republican Jewish Coalition rally in Delray Beach, Florida, on Friday.

PALM BEACH, UNITED STATES // Florida's large Jewish community is expected to play a significant role in today's crucial Republican primary and the two leading candidates have been working hard to convince Jewish voters that they are unflinching supporters of Israel.

Home to about 638,000 Jews, the third-highest concentration in the US after New York and New Jersey, Florida is the first Republican primary race with a substantial Jewish vote. And even though Jews make up only 3.4 per cent of the state's population and the majority of them are Democrats, Republican candidates have been eager to demonstrate their support for Israel.

In part, this is because Florida is a swing state. Barack Obama, the US president, won Florida by less than 3 per cent of the vote in 2008. But his attempts to forge a peace agreement between Palestinians and Israelis, and especially US pressure on Israel to end settlement building in occupied territory, have discomfited some Jewish voters since.

Despite their history of voting for Democrats, 41 percent of Florida's Jews in 2008 voted for John McCain, "who made big inroads" into the Jewish vote in Florida, said Susan Fine, a professor of political science at the University of Central Florida.

A September 2011 Gallup poll found that Jewish support for the US president had dropped from 78 per cent in 2008 to 54 per cent.

But even the small number of Jewish registered Republicans could have a "magnified effect" in determining who will challenge Mr Obama for the US presidency in November, Ms Fine said.

Part of the reason is involvement, she said. Jewish Republicans are a "high turnout" group, and with the smaller than normal primary voting numbers, that increases its importance.

Moreover, Florida is the biggest and most diverse state yet to hold a primary. The outcome here will demonstate which candidate has the best chance to win in the general election in November, Ms Fine said.

Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, was leading Newt Gingrich, the former leader of the House of Representatives, in opinion polls two days ahead of the race. Both Rick Santorum, the former senator from Pennsylvania, and Ron Paul, the Texas representative, are lagging behind, and with Florida being a winner-take-all state, neither is campaigning hard here.

But the two frontrunners are. And while Jewish Republicans are as consumed as everyone else here by the stuttering economic recovery - almost 25 per cent of all home foreclosures since the housing crisis of 2008 have been in Florida - the focus of their pitch to Jewish voters "has not been about economic conservatism, even though that is a common opinion among Jewish Republicans", Ms Fine said.

"They focused on their personal connection and strong military support for Israel."

In fact, Mr Romney and Mr Gingrich have repeatedly competed to present themselves as the most fervent supporter of Israel. They did so again when asked for their positions on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in their last television debate on Wednesday in Florida.

Mr Romney made sure to pin the blame for lack of peace on the Palestinians, specifically "Hamas and those who think like Hamas who have as their aim the elimination of Israel". He also repeated assertions that Palestinian schoolbooks taught their children to "kill Jews", an old charge long discredited. The best way to get to peace is "not to vacillate or appease", Mr Romney said to loud applause, but to say "we stand with our friend Israel".

Not to be outdone, Mr Gingrich repeated his claim that Palestinians were an invented people. He said they would have to give up their right of return, recognise Israel's right to exist and end any violent resistance if they were to one day "have the dignity of a state".

And it was a message Mr Gingrich took with him over the weekend to Palm Beach County, where he met voters in Boca Raton and spoke at a dinner arranged by the Palm Beach County Republican Club in West Palm Beach.

Palm Beach County has the highest proportion of Jews in Florida, and the sixth-highest of any county in America, according to the US Census Bureau. And a 2011 study by Miami University found that as many as 78 per cent of elderly people in the county are Jewish.

The state's Jewish voters are struggling to decide who to support in November, if an unscientific sample of shoppers at a supermarket near Century Village, a large gated retirement community due west of West Palm Beach, is to be believed.

Edith Niles, 81, has voted Republican since the 1990s but said "I am not impressed by the field. These are not good choices. But I will be voting for Romney. He's the only one who could beat Obama."

Marty Felkes, 71, said he was considering voting Republican for the first time this year.

"I don't think the current president has done a good job on foreign policy. He's too soft on Iran."

Mr Felkes said he has an Israeli flag in his flat in Century Village and that Israel and the US must stand together to "fight terrorism".

"There can never be enough support shown for Israel," he said.

Of course, Florida's Jewish Democrats are aghast at the candidates the Republicans are putting forward.

Helen Brenner, a retired nurse from New York, said the candidates were "pandering".

"It's embarrassing," said Ms Brenner, 81, a life-long Democrat. "They think they are going to get peace by starting a war with Iran?"

She shook her in disbelief. "I wouldn't trust Gingrich further then I could throw him. And Romney… he's too rich."

okarmi@thenational.ae