Two recent public opinion surveys released in Israel and the United States demonstrate that the campaign by President Obama and members of his diplomatic team to criticize and isolate Israel over the issue of settlements in the West Bank is having an impact in both countries.
In Israel, a survey sponsored by the Jerusalem Post revealed a stunning result: just 6% of Israeli Jews now regard the U.S. president as pro-Israel. Another 86% regard Obama as either pro-Palestinian (50%) or neutral between the two parties (36%). No American president has ever been viewed in Israel this way, and it has taken but five months for the Israelis to come to understand the new reality in U.S.-Israeli relations — that the special relationship and friendship between the two countries has ended, at least at the level of the U.S. president and his administration.
A second survey conducted by the Israel Project to measure support for Israel or the Palestinians in the United States indicates that the withering criticism of Israel by the new administration has taken a toll on support for Israel in the U.S. In five months, support for Israel has dropped from 57% to 49%
The administration has made three arguments in support of its new tougher approach with Israel:
- The Israeli settlements are at the core of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
- The Israel-Palestinian conflict, and in particular, the perception that the U.S. is on Israel’s side, is a primary reason for Muslim hostility to the U.S.
- If Israel wants the United States and other nations to increase pressure on Iran to end its nuclear program, it needs to stop settlement growth and be prepared to abandon all settlements in the West Bank (as it did in Gaza) and retreat to the “green line (the pre-Six Day War border).
This last argument fully encapsulates the Saudi “peace plan,” which may be why the president bowed to the Saudi prince when they met. While it may not be good to appear to be pro-Israel, appearing to be pro-Muslim and pro-Saudi is just fine.
Unfortunately for the Obama team, the current unrest in Iran has been inconvenient for their three-part fairy tale of the conflict; making nice to the mullahs and casting aside Israel has not made the mullahs more reasonable and open to the West. So too, it would be hard to argue with a straight face that al-Qaeda would have abandoned their 9/11 attacks if only Israel had frozen settlement growth.
It is also inconvenient for Obama that the Islamic terror group Hamas, which controls Gaza, continues to reject any reconciliation with the Palestinian Authority, rejects Israel’s right to exist anywhere, and rejects any end to the use of violence to achieve its goals. For Hamas, Israeli settlements that need to be abandoned include Haifa and Tel Aviv.
Finally, it has been inconvenient that the administration’s point person on Iran, Ambassador Dennis Ross, now moved into the White House to a new job, has specifically dismissed the linkage between the Israeli Palestinian conflict and the Iranian nuclear program.
The administration has made a bet that by focusing on settlements, an issue that has been controversial both within Israel and among American Jews, it can divide and conquer. There are many liberal Jews who are totally in thrall to the Obama agenda on domestic issues and to Obama personally (psychiatric textbooks could be written on this latter item, but regrettably, they would need to be autobiographical).
During the campaign, there was concern among some liberal Jews about Obama’s history and long friendship with people hostile to Israel such as Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Professor Rashid Khalidi, Ali Abunimah, and Samantha Power. To counter this, the campaign rolled out a chorus line of Chicago Jews who could swear for Obama’s bona fides as to his love for both Israel and the Jews. For most liberal Jews, Israel is an issue — but not the issue. Abortion rights, separation of church and state, stem cell research, universal health care, saving the planet — these issues are what ignite real political passion for many liberal Jews, not support for Israel. When I appeared on a panel for the NJDC at the Democratic convention, people in the audience seemed annoyed that the subjects of support for Israel or the Iranian threat were even raised as issues.
But the poll results from Israel have got to be worrying to the Obama team. Liberal Jews are a critically important fundraising group and voter bloc for Democrats. With the economy remaining very weak and Obama’s national approval ratings sagging, the 2010 midterm elections and the presidential race in 2012 could be more competitive than were the Democratic sweeps in 2006 and 2008.
Will some liberal Jews step back, uncomfortable with the perception that Obama is hostile to Israel? Has Obama crossed a threshold among Jewish voters, much as Jimmy Carter did in 1979-1980, leading to a greatly diminished level of Jewish support in his run for re-election (Carter won but 45% of the Jewish vote in 1980).
To counter this perception, the lapdogs of the Jewish left — in particular, J-Street (a group whose real mission seems to be to reduce the power and influence of AIPAC) and the NJDC — are furiously spinning how Obama is still fond of Israel and the right choice for peace (which presumably is just around the corner if only Israel caved on the settlements issue). It is too early to tell if Obama’s near daily haranguing of Israel has cost him any substantial Jewish support at home. Blindness, after all, is not cured by taking off an eye patch. And to be sure, Obama has more public relations skills and personal charm than Carter ever had, and a far more compliant canine-like obedient national media committed to protecting the Obama brand.
But there is anxiety out there among some liberal Jews about Obama’s cold hand to Israel, coupled with Iran’s nuclear program, which despite all the current turmoil is full steam ahead at the moment. Some Democratic members of the House and Senate are clearly sensing there is a problem with a normally reliable constituency group. In recent days Senator Menendez of New Jersey and even Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have created some space between themselves and Obama by reiterating their traditional support for Israel. So far, there is no evidence that the Obama team (including Hillary Clinton and George Mitchell) is backing off its settlement mantra.
As cautious as Obama has been in refusing to support the Iranians on the streets, he has been quite abrupt in his willingness to cast aside decades of ties between the U.S. and Israel. Israeli Jews have caught on that the emperor is not wearing any clothes. Will American Jews wake up as well?