Newt Gingrich describes the Palestinians as an invented people and seeks covert action against Iran, while Mitt Romney accuses President Barack Obama of throwing Israel under a bus.
But the Republican presidential candidates’ tough talk on the Middle East in Florida before Tuesday’s primary is doing little to sway the state’s large Jewish population from its longstanding support for the Democrats.
If anything, it’s Republican arguments on the U.S. economy - not Israel - that might win more favor with Jewish voters here come the general election in November.
“There has been, particularly among younger voters, a small shift toward the Republican Party in general,” said Terri Susan Fine, a political scientist at the University of Central Florida in Orlando.
She said there was some concern about Israel, but the larger reason was because some Jews see the Republican Party as more friendly to business.
“Economic conservativism is what is shifting their focus toward the Republican Party,” she said. “Younger Jewish voters are very secure in Israel’s stability.”
Rabbi David Kay of Congregation Ohev Shalom, a conservative temple north of Orlando, said members of his congregation were more concerned with economic issues in a state hard-hit by the housing crisis and one of the nation’s highest unemployment rates.
“We still see that there’s a lot of folks hurting,” he said.
Jewish voters are also generally more liberal on social issues than the Republican candidates.
President Barack Obama received almost eight out of every 10 votes cast by Jewish voters in 2008. That overwhelming support among Florida’s 640,000-member Jewish community, half of whom are over 65, was a key component in his narrow 3 percentage point victory in the swing state.
Jewish voters historically have been concerned with social justice and older voters especially have deep ties to the Democratic Party and labor movement going back to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidency during the 1930s and earlier.
“It’s part of our being - we are our brother’s keeper,” said Sydelle Sher, 79, of Delray Beach, a retired schoolteacher.
But Sher, who attended a Gingrich rally last week, described herself as a fiscal conservative worried about the direction the country is going in under Obama.
“I fear the European-style socialism trend,” she said, although she added that Israel policy is very important in her decision.
With tensions in the Middle East rising over Iran’s nuclear ambitions, some Jewish Republicans wonder if the United States will stick by Israel.
Gloria Winton, 75, had harsh words for Obama on Israel as she headed into Mo’s Bagels and Deli, near her home in Aventura, Florida. “I never thought before that Israel couldn’t trust the United States. Now, I don’t think that they can trust us,” she said.
But she said she was leaning toward Romney, not Gingrich, because of Romney’s more moderate tone. “I think (Gingrich is) very smart but I don’t know if the independent voter would accept him,” she said.
As they fight for their party’s nomination, Romney and Gingrich have often seemed to compete over who can take the strongest pro-Israel line.
Gingrich, a former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, drew 700 people to a rally on Friday sponsored by a Jewish Republican group, and both he and Romney count pro-Israel businessmen among their financial supporters.
Gingrich dismisses the Palestinians as an “invented people,” and promises he would move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv as soon as he takes office.
Despite years of U.S.-led negotiations toward a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Romney insists the Palestinians are not interested in living in their own nation alongside Israel, saying they want to destroy the Jewish state.
The former Massachusetts governor says Obama “threw Israel under the bus” for suggesting negotiations start with borders as they were before the 1967 Middle East war.
Democrats insist that Obama is not hostile to Israel, and call the Republicans’ campaign a misleading and desperate attempt to make headway with an overwhelmingly Democratic voter bloc.
“Our ironclad commitment - and I meant ironclad - to Israel’s security has meant the closest military cooperation between our two countries in history,” Obama said in his State of the Union address on Tuesday.
Jewish voters typically account for 6-8 percent of turnout in Florida elections, and a lower percentage in Republican-only contests like Tuesday’s primary, but they can make a difference if the vote is close.
Ira Sheskin, who runs the University of Miami’s Jewish Demography Project, said statements like Gingrich’s denial of the Palestinians’ national identity could alienate the many Jewish voters whose main goal is Middle East peace.
“It was really not good for Gingrich to say that,” Sheskin said. “Because if he becomes president, you want him to act as an honest broker in the Middle East. You don’t do that if you’ve told one of the sides that they are an invented people.”
“You won’t advance the cause of peace.”
Additional reporting by Ros Krasny in Delray Beach; Editing by Alistair Bell and Doina Chiacu