President Obama awarded the nation’s highest civilian medal Wednesday night to Israeli President Shimon Peres as frustration mounts in Israel over the administration’s handling of Iran and as signs emerge of a possible backlash among Jewish voters in the U.S.
From appearances, the Medal of Freedom ceremony in the East Room of the White House, with toasts followed by a reception in honor of Mr. Peres, exemplified what Mr. Obama calls his “unshakable” commitment to Israel.
The president said Mr. Peres “knows the necessity of strength.”
“It’s why I’ve worked with Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu to ensure that the security cooperation between the United States and Israel is closer and stronger than it has ever been,” Mr. Obama said. “Because the security of the state of Israel is nonnegotiable.”
But in Israel and in the U.S., there are signs of dissatisfaction with the Obama administration’s policies in the Middle East, especially with Mr. Obama’s insistence on diplomacy and sanctions to compel Iran to allow international inspectors to examine its nuclear facilities.
A Gallup poll last week found that Mr. Obama’s support among Jewish voters has slipped 10 percentage points since November 2008, to 64 percent. The drop is five points more than the president’s decline in popularity with all other voting groups, Gallup said.
Presumed Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney gets support from 29 percent of Jewish voters, which the Republican Jewish Coalition says represents the “highest level of Jewish support for a Republican presidential candidate in 24 years.” The coalition’s executive director, Matt Brooks, said that if Mr. Romney receives that level of support in November, it will be “a disaster” for the president.
In Israel, in addition to the well-publicized rift with Mr. Netanyahu, there is general criticism of Mr. Obama’s failure to confront Iran more forcefully on its nuclear ambitions. Ari Shavit, a left-leaning journalist, wrote recently in the newspaper Ha’aretz that Mr. Obama “is staging a deceptive show of a deal with the Iranians.”
“The president sees how the Iranians mock him — and does nothing,” Mr. Shavit wrote. “He sees radical Islam approaching the nuclear brink — and does not budge. The cautious president sees not the catastrophic price the West will pay for Iran’s nuclearization, but the political price he will pay if oil prices rise.”
Mr. Peres raised another bit of friction during his White House visit by presenting Mr. Obama with a petition with 75,000 signatures urging the release of Jonathan Pollard, the former U.S. Navy intelligence analyst serving a life sentence in federal prison for passing classified secrets to Israel.
Mr. Pollard’s health is failing, but a White House spokesman said Wednesday that Mr. Obama was unlikely to grant Pollard clemency.
“Our position has not changed and will not change today,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said.
Whether any of these tensions will affect Mr. Obama’s re-election effort is difficult to assess. With both camps expecting a close election, even a small swing among Jewish voters could make a difference in battleground states such as Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio.
David Harris, CEO of the National Jewish Democratic Council in Washington, said support for Mr. Obama among Jewish voters is still strong.
Referring to the Gallup poll, Mr. Harris noted that Mr. Obama’s support in June 2008 among Jewish voters was 62 percent, about where it is now. He said it’s meaningless to compare this month’s Gallup poll with election results from November 2008.