WASHINGTON -- An unpublicized Israel Bond dinner held at The Club in Birmingham, Ala., on May 5 conveyed good news for the expanding Republican majority and bad news for the endangered roadmap that supposedly leads to a Palestinian state.
The Jewish community event in Alabama honored a distinguished businessman named Harold Ripps. What made it politically significant was that six politicians were among the approximately 250 people in attendance, and all six were conservative Southern Republicans. Five were Alabamans, led by Gov. Bob Riley, and the sixth was former Republican National Chairman Haley Barbour, who is running for governor of Mississippi this year.
An all-Republican political roster for such an event signified progress for serious GOP efforts to end absolute Democratic domination over the small but important Jewish constituency. The question is whether that constrains President Bush's pursuit of Israeli-Palestinian peace. The private assessment by important Republicans is that it should and that it does.
Israel Bond dinners not long ago were the exclusive province of Democratic politicians, and that is what makes what happened in Birmingham so remarkable. In addition to Riley and Barbour, the Republicans attending were Congressmen Spencer Bachus and Robert Aderholt, plus two state senators.
Their presence reflects George W. Bush's post-2000 popularity in the Jewish community, thanks mostly to his staunch support for Israel. While a small minority nationally, Jews are disproportionately influential. That is partly true because of fund-raising, but what is really important is their potentially decisive role in Florida, New York, California, Illinois, Michigan and Maryland. They conceivably could spell the difference between victory and defeat in the 2004 presidential election.
The conventional wisdom inside the Republican hierarchy has always been that seeking the Jewish vote is even more of a fool's errand than going after African-Americans. I have heard many Republican politicians voice the vulgar old saw that Jews live like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans -- contending that they are irredeemable Democrats.
No longer, say hardheaded Republican leaders, who insist they can get 40 percent of the Jewish vote in 2004. They argue that social and economic liberalism now runs a poor second to support for Israel, and believe they for the first time have outdone Democrats in cheering the Jewish state. There is no more unyielding supporter of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's policies than House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, the exemplar of muscular Republicanism.