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Obama Has High Stakes in Mideast Showdown at UN

President Barack Obama speaking ahead of a potentially destabilizing diplomatic clash between Israel and Palestinians at the United Nations as a potential vote on Palestinian statehood looms, in Alexandria, Virginia, September 16, 2011.

Palestinian efforts to seek full membership in the United Nations are being closely watched in the United States by two ethnic communities -Jewish-Americans and Muslim-Americans.

Public opinion polls show support for President Barack Obama is down slightly among Jewish-American voters, but is holding steady with Muslim-Americans. Analysts say the president has been hurt by a perception among some Jewish voters that he has not been supportive enough of Israel, and some of the Republican presidential contenders have focused on the issue, as well.

Concern about the Obama administration’s relations with Israel seems to have been a factor in the recent special congressional election in New York City won by Republican Bob Turner.

“We have been asked by the people of this district to send a message to Washington and I hope they hear it loud and clear,” said Turner.

New York Election

He said voter dissatisfaction with the economy and President Obama were the main reasons for his victory.

But Turner got some help from former New York City mayor Ed Koch.

“Mr. President, listen to us!” said Koch.

Koch urged voters, especially the district’s high percentage of Orthodox Jews, to support Turner in the election as a protest against what he believes is Obama’s weakening support for Israel.

It is a theme that also is playing out in the battle for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination where support for Israel is strong among Evangelical Christian voters.

Obama's precarious position

Several of the Republican contenders including the current frontrunner, Texas Governor Rick Perry, say Obama has been too tough on Israel by demanding it make additional concessions to the Palestinians.

"We see the American administration having a willingness to isolate a close ally and to do so in a manner that is both insulting and naive," said Perry.

Jewish voters supported Obama in 2008 and historically vote Democratic in presidential elections.

But sensing trouble, the Obama White House now is making an effort to shore up support among Jewish groups and affirm the president’s support of Israel.

Presidential spokesman Jay Carney was asked about the issue at a recent news briefing.

“So this president’s absolute commitment to Israel’s security is, I think, demonstrated and unshakeable,” said Carney.

Amid differences, desire for peace

Political analysts say Jewish and Muslim-American voters will be closely following the U.S. response to the Palestinian bid for United Nations membership.

Pollster and political expert John Zogby said, “There is a lot more Jewish-American unity around key issues, you know, than there is Arab-American unity around key issues. But the fact is that in many ways, I have seen the development of an Arab-American community where 30 years ago it was very fragmented.”

Polls show strong U.S. domestic support for Israel, but also for the idea of an eventual agreement that would let both sides live in peace, said Harvard University analyst David Gergen.

“But what we do know is ultimately the aspirations of both the Israelis and the Palestinians should be met. They each should be able to live in a state that is at peace with its neighbors,” said Gergen.

The domestic political stakes for President Obama are significant as he looks to retain the support of both Jewish-American and Muslim-American voters in next year’s presidential election.

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    Jim Malone

    Jim Malone has served as VOA’s National correspondent covering U.S. elections and politics since 1995. Prior to that he was a VOA congressional correspondent and served as VOA’s East Africa Correspondent from 1986 to 1990. Jim began his VOA career with the English to Africa Service in 1983.