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Pondering Presidential Choices
As President Barack Obama seeks re-election and the GOP looks to make inroads among Jews, the Jewish vote is going to be held up to a microscope, with any potential swing analyzed and scrutinized.
But is it going too far to look at how one Jew in particular will vote? What if that Jew is someone as influential and as heavily identifiable with the liberal and pro-Israel camps as Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz?
Dershowitz got partisans on both sides talking when he said during a speech last week at the University of Pennsylvania that he hadn't decided whether or not he would back the president this time around.
In 2008, the lifelong Democrat backed Hillary Rodham Clinton in the primary before throwing his support behind Obama in the general election.
At the University of Pennsylvania event last week, to which Dershowitz was invited to counteract the boycott, divestment and sanctions conference taking place on the campus, Dershowitz was asked how the issue of Israel will likely affect the presidential election.
He began by saying that he hopes support for Israel can remain a bipartisan issue. Then he said: "Probably many of you know my politics. I'm a liberal Democrat."
But he went on to say:
"I have made it clear that each candidate has to earn my vote, and I frankly haven't made up my mind about who I'm going to vote for in the next election."
But, he added, "I am not going to vote for Ron Paul."
Just a few hours earlier, in an interview with several journalists, Dershowitz had said that he was supporting Obama. It was in response to a question about the impact on the race of casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, whose family has donated $10 million to a Superpac supporting Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Dershowitz said it was good to have pro-Israel donors backing candidates on all sides, and, though he has fewer resources at his disposal than Adelson, he's backing the president.
When asked to clarify his seemingly disparate remarks, he told the Exponent that he hasn't made a final decision, and that it would likely hinge on the Iran issue.
He said he hopes "to support President Obama, but my support will depend to a significant degree on his words and actions regarding Iran's nuclear program, which I regard as the greatest danger to peace in the world."
He said that while he doesn't agree with Obama on all of his Israel-related policies, he passes his "80 percent" test.
If the candidates are "equally strong in their support for a thoughtful and principled foreign policy," Dershowitz said, he would back Obama based on domestic concerns.
If Dershowitz decided to back a Republican, it might be the biggest Jewish defection since former New York City Mayor Ed Koch, citing Israel as his chief concern, supported George W. Bush in 2004. (Koch has been critical of Obama at times but has said he's supporting him.)
Republicans argue that, unlike in 2008, Obama has an actual record on Middle East policy, and it should be enough to turn a substantial number of Jews away from the president.
But Democrats point out that Obama has sided with Israel on key issues at the United Nations and has increased military cooperation to unprecedented levels.
Several Democratic insiders said they believed that Dershowitz had already committed his support for the president.
When asked if Dershowitz's public indecision could signal a wider hesitancy on the part of pro-Israel voters, Democratic strategist and former Clinton White House aide Steve Rabinowitz rejected the notion.
"I find it shocking that someone of Professor Dershowitz's intellect and knowledge has not tracked the president's actions on Iran more closely," said Rabinowitz, of Washington, D.C. "Not only has the president's rhetoric been strong, but his actions have been equally strong. The president has enacted the most far-reaching sanctions on Iran ever."
Across the political divide, Matthew Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said that Dershowitz "is an example of a lot of people who are reassessing their support for Barack Obama in 2012. It shows that Republicans are continuing to make inroads."
Brooks cited a recent Pew survey on party identification. It found that Jewish identification with Democrats slipped from 72 to 65 percent between 2008 and 2011, and the shift to affiliation with the Republican Party grew from 20 to 29 percent.
Brooks also referenced an American Jewish Committee survey, released in September, which found that 45 percent of Jews approve of Obama, opposed to 48 percent who disapproved of his performance.
The numbers show a substantial drop for Obama from the 57 percent who approved of his performance in the 2010 AJC survey.
These surveys "underscore the message we have been saying about the problem that Obama has in the Jewish community," said Brooks.
Jeff Jubelirer, a Philadelphia-based media strategist and political commentator with Republican ties, was a little more guarded in his assessment.
"I think it is too early to determine if Israel will be an issue that will bring more support among traditional Democratic voters to the eventual Republican nominee," said Jubelirer. "Certainly, if Iran's nuclear capabilities and threats become even more alarming, many will be looking at what President Obama does or says in relation to our country's full support of Israel's right to self-defense."