About 20 people joined the Pittsburgh Israel Public Affairs Committee (PIPAC), a student organization at the University of Pittsburgh, to watch President Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney debate on foreign policy Monday, Oct. 22, at the Hillel Jewish University Center in Oakland.
The large majority of the attendees, most of whom were students from Pitt and Carnegie Mellon University, came into the foreign policy debate already set on who had their vote for president, but four or five students were still on the fence.
Sam Hantverk, president of PIPAC and a senior at Pitt, said that the group organized the watch party “to give students the opportunity to be open to the foreign policies of each candidate and to discuss how the U.S.-Israel relationship is vital to both nations.”
Aaron Weil, executive director and CEO of Hillel, and Aharon David, the Herman and Helen Lipsitz Jewish Agency Israel Fellow at Hillel, spoke to the students before the debate began.
Weil, who worked on Capitol Hill and lived in Israel for 10 years prior to becoming the head of Hillel in Pittsburgh, said the U.S.-Israel relationship is about mutual values and joint security ties and not, as some suspect because of “the Jewish vote.”
“U.S. law stipulates that 85 percent of the military aid that Israel receives each year must be spent in the United States. Thousands of American jobs rely on that funding, so supporting aid to Israel is also a domestic jobs issue and neither candidate is likely to change that.”
Weil also cautioned the students to remember that both candidates support Israel. One key policy point to look for, he said, would be to identify which candidate would earn the respect of both the leaders and the people of the Middle East.
“Israel’s fortunes rise and fall not on American aid alone,” Weil cautioned, “but also by the perception of the U.S. as a force to be reckoned with in that region,” he said.
In giving an Israeli perspective on the presidential race, David, a former combat medic in the Israeli Air Force who also worked for the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said that, while Obama might not have a very close personal relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the two countries will always have a close relationship, no matter who is president. Romney might be friendlier with Netanyahu, but we just don’t know.
After the debate was over, only one undecided voter was left.
A first year graduate student from CMU named Noam, who did not want to give his last name, was among the undecided voters prior to the debate but had made his decision by the time it was over.
“Obama had a very strong performance,” he said. “Romney didn’t have any solid criticisms of Obama’s policies.” When asked about how he thought the candidates did when it came to Israel, Noam said, “It seemed like both were similar.” He added, “It’s not a decisive issue, there’s not much of a difference.”
(Sam Lapin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)