Commentary Magazine


Topic: Israeli public opinion

Obama Is Netanyahu’s Ace in the Hole

When Israelis went to the polls last year the big story was what wasn’t the focus of the campaign. The January 22, 2013 Knesset election was largely fought on domestic issues, with the biggest winner being the new Yesh Atid party led by former journalist Yair Lapid that won 19 seats to finish a surprising second to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud-Beytenu. Yesh Atid’s success came about because the Palestinian conflict had reached such a stalemate that many Israelis no longer considered the traditional right-left positions on territory and settlements to be issues that determined their votes. Lapid symbolized the hope that a new centrism would come to dominate Israeli politics and eventually eclipse parties rooted in Israel’s historic conflict with the Arab world. Though Netanyahu became the first prime minister to win two consecutive terms since Menachem Begin in a race where he was the only plausible candidate to lead the country, he lost considerable ground in the months leading up to the election in no small part because of this shift in opinion.

But one year later, it appears that the pendulum has swung back in favor of Netanyahu. A new Times of Israel poll shows that if elections were held now, Likud-Beytenu would not only finish first but would gain a whopping 15 Knesset seats, recouping its 2013 losses and adding five more. Meanwhile Lapid, who seemed destined a year ago to overtake Netanyahu, has lost considerable ground and it is the Labor Party and its new leader Isaac Herzog that seems to have attained the status of Likud’s main rival, albeit trailing by a huge 46-18 margin in Knesset seats in the poll.

What brought about this transformation? Some of it has to do with last year’s political stars, such as Lapid and the Jewish Home Party’s Naftali Bennett losing some of their independent luster while serving in Netanyahu’s Cabinet. But the drastic shift from the center to support for the right—indicating that the Israeli electorate is returning to its traditional preoccupation with security issues—and the lack of any noticeable change in Netanyahu’s personal favorability ratings makes it clear that the two individuals most responsible for the conspicuous change in Israeli public opinion are Barack Obama and John Kerry.

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When Israelis went to the polls last year the big story was what wasn’t the focus of the campaign. The January 22, 2013 Knesset election was largely fought on domestic issues, with the biggest winner being the new Yesh Atid party led by former journalist Yair Lapid that won 19 seats to finish a surprising second to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud-Beytenu. Yesh Atid’s success came about because the Palestinian conflict had reached such a stalemate that many Israelis no longer considered the traditional right-left positions on territory and settlements to be issues that determined their votes. Lapid symbolized the hope that a new centrism would come to dominate Israeli politics and eventually eclipse parties rooted in Israel’s historic conflict with the Arab world. Though Netanyahu became the first prime minister to win two consecutive terms since Menachem Begin in a race where he was the only plausible candidate to lead the country, he lost considerable ground in the months leading up to the election in no small part because of this shift in opinion.

But one year later, it appears that the pendulum has swung back in favor of Netanyahu. A new Times of Israel poll shows that if elections were held now, Likud-Beytenu would not only finish first but would gain a whopping 15 Knesset seats, recouping its 2013 losses and adding five more. Meanwhile Lapid, who seemed destined a year ago to overtake Netanyahu, has lost considerable ground and it is the Labor Party and its new leader Isaac Herzog that seems to have attained the status of Likud’s main rival, albeit trailing by a huge 46-18 margin in Knesset seats in the poll.

What brought about this transformation? Some of it has to do with last year’s political stars, such as Lapid and the Jewish Home Party’s Naftali Bennett losing some of their independent luster while serving in Netanyahu’s Cabinet. But the drastic shift from the center to support for the right—indicating that the Israeli electorate is returning to its traditional preoccupation with security issues—and the lack of any noticeable change in Netanyahu’s personal favorability ratings makes it clear that the two individuals most responsible for the conspicuous change in Israeli public opinion are Barack Obama and John Kerry.

In the year since Israelis went to the polls, domestic problems such as the high cost of living and secular-religious tensions have not been solved. What has changed dramatically, however, is that the Obama administration has, after a hiatus that coincided with the American presidential election cycle, returned to its feckless efforts to pressure Israel in order to revive the moribund peace process with the Palestinians. Kerry forced Netanyahu to agree to the release of more than 100 terrorist murderers who were greeted as heroes by Israel’s so-called partner in peace, Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas. Though Netanyahu has agreed in principle to the creation of a Palestinian state—a stand that alienates much of his base—the PA still refuses to agree to positions that would signal its readiness to end the conflict. These include renouncing the “right” of return for the 1948 refugees and their descendants as well as recognizing the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn.

Since the overwhelming majority of Israelis regard Obama and Kerry’s push to force Israel to retreat to the 1967 borders as madness, support for Netanyahu’s position has increased. This means the Israeli public is back where it was during Obama’s first term when the president sought to undermine the prime minister but found that every fight he picked with Netanyahu only strengthened him at home.

The dispute between Israel and the U.S. over Iran policy is also a major factor in strengthening Netanyahu’s coalition. If there is any consensus issue in Israeli politics that unites the entire political spectrum it is the grave nature of the Iranian threat and opposition to any gesture, statement or action that smacks of appeasement of the ayatollahs. The U.S. decision to loosen sanctions on Iran in order to achieve a weak interim nuclear deal is widely seen by Israelis as a betrayal of the promises Obama has made never to allow Tehran to achieve its nuclear goal. That means the U.S. drift toward détente with Iran is yet another reminder to Israelis that security issues remain paramount. Since Israelis don’t trust Obama on Iran or the peace process, it’s little wonder that every time he pressures or criticizes Israel, support for he prime minister increases. Netanyahu’s ace in the hole remains the Israeli public’s justly negative feelings about Obama.

However, because of reforms enacted after last January’s vote, Netanyahu can’t call a snap election to take advantage of the surge to Likud. The next Knesset election won’t take place until November 2017. Although much can change between now and then, there is no indication that a viable alternative to Netanyahu will emerge in the next three years. Even worse for the prime minister, in 2017 he won’t be able to count on Israeli antipathy to the president of the United States. By then Barack Obama will have retired and will perhaps have been replaced by a president who may be more sensitive to the threats facing the Jewish state. It’s doubtful that the next president could be less so.

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Israelis Immune to Peace Optimism

There may be no objective reason to believe that the new round of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians will succeed and a good chance that they will actually make things worse in the Middle East. But that hasn’t stopped Secretary of State John Kerry’s fans on the op-ed pages of our leading newspapers from continuing to applaud his efforts. Both the Washington Post’s David Ignatius and the New York Times’s Thomas Friedman think Kerry’s efforts are inspired and even clever. But apparently most Israelis don’t agree. That’s the takeaway from a new poll conducted by the Israeli Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University published yesterday.

While a large majority of both Jewish and Arab Israelis favor conducting peace talks, most Israeli Jews think it would be a mistake for their country to follow Kerry’s advice and withdraw almost completely from the West Bank and dismantle many settlements, even if the Jewish state were allowed to retain most of the major settlement blocs:

The poll … found that 63 percent of Jews in Israel oppose a withdrawal to the 1967 lines with land swaps as part of any peace arrangement with the Palestinian Authority, even if it meant Israel would hold onto the Etzion Bloc, directly south of Jerusalem; Ma’aleh Adumim, east of the capital; and Ariel in the central West Bank about 34 kilometers (21 miles) east of Tel Aviv. Assuming Israeli retention of Ariel, Ma’aleh Adumim and other settlement blocs, 58% of Jewish respondents were opposed to the dismantling of other settlements.

The poll was conducted among 602 respondents in late July, after the announcement of new peace talks with the Palestinians, and has a statistical error of 4.5%. According to the survey, 50% of Jewish Israelis also oppose the transfer of Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem to Palestinian Authority control with a special arrangement for Jewish holy sites.

These results, which seemingly contradict other surveys that show that a majority would back a peace deal if it were put to a referendum, will doubtlessly be interpreted in some quarters as evidence that proves Israelis really don’t want peace. But all these numbers tell us is that most Israelis have a better understanding of Palestinian political culture than Kerry, Friedman, or Ignatius. Though the desire for peace in Israel remains high, if most there don’t think territorial withdrawals are a good idea, it’s because they have no faith in the willingness of the Palestinians to make peace or to abstain from violence even if an accord was signed.

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There may be no objective reason to believe that the new round of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians will succeed and a good chance that they will actually make things worse in the Middle East. But that hasn’t stopped Secretary of State John Kerry’s fans on the op-ed pages of our leading newspapers from continuing to applaud his efforts. Both the Washington Post’s David Ignatius and the New York Times’s Thomas Friedman think Kerry’s efforts are inspired and even clever. But apparently most Israelis don’t agree. That’s the takeaway from a new poll conducted by the Israeli Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University published yesterday.

While a large majority of both Jewish and Arab Israelis favor conducting peace talks, most Israeli Jews think it would be a mistake for their country to follow Kerry’s advice and withdraw almost completely from the West Bank and dismantle many settlements, even if the Jewish state were allowed to retain most of the major settlement blocs:

The poll … found that 63 percent of Jews in Israel oppose a withdrawal to the 1967 lines with land swaps as part of any peace arrangement with the Palestinian Authority, even if it meant Israel would hold onto the Etzion Bloc, directly south of Jerusalem; Ma’aleh Adumim, east of the capital; and Ariel in the central West Bank about 34 kilometers (21 miles) east of Tel Aviv. Assuming Israeli retention of Ariel, Ma’aleh Adumim and other settlement blocs, 58% of Jewish respondents were opposed to the dismantling of other settlements.

The poll was conducted among 602 respondents in late July, after the announcement of new peace talks with the Palestinians, and has a statistical error of 4.5%. According to the survey, 50% of Jewish Israelis also oppose the transfer of Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem to Palestinian Authority control with a special arrangement for Jewish holy sites.

These results, which seemingly contradict other surveys that show that a majority would back a peace deal if it were put to a referendum, will doubtlessly be interpreted in some quarters as evidence that proves Israelis really don’t want peace. But all these numbers tell us is that most Israelis have a better understanding of Palestinian political culture than Kerry, Friedman, or Ignatius. Though the desire for peace in Israel remains high, if most there don’t think territorial withdrawals are a good idea, it’s because they have no faith in the willingness of the Palestinians to make peace or to abstain from violence even if an accord was signed.

Let’s start by noting that most Israelis find it impossible to forget something that the peace processers keep trying to flush down the memory hole: the Palestinians have already rejected Israeli offers of statehood and withdrawal from almost all of the West Bank three times. With Hamas still in control of Gaza, the notion that a weak Mahmoud Abbas would accept a deal that the more powerful Yasir Arafat refused requires a leap of faith that most sensible people are unable to make.

But even if we leave aside that natural skepticism, why wouldn’t most Israelis accept such withdrawals in exchange for a peace agreement? Aren’t they persuaded by demographic arguments that claim that a continuation of the status quo will ultimately compromise Israel’s Jewish majority? And don’t they think the country would be more secure if it had an internationally recognized border that kept most of the Palestinian Arabs outside of the Jewish state?

Most Israelis would probably be happier if there were no demographic threat, even if the predictions of doom might be exaggerated. There’s also no question that they desire peace as ardently as those who think the country must be saved from itself.

But the problem is that, unlike Kerry, Friedman, and Ignatius, they also remember what happened when their country withdrew every settlement, soldier, and individual Jew from Gaza. The result was the creation of a terror state on their doorstep and few in Israel want to risk repeating that mistake in the far more strategic West Bank. Simply put, they don’t trust Abbas and his Fatah Party, which demanded the release of terrorists with blood on their hands as the price for the privilege of negotiating with them and continues to laud murderers of Jews as heroes in their official media, to make peace. If a majority thinks creating a sovereign state largely along the 1967 lines where Israeli forces could not enter is a mistake, it’s because their experience teaches them that doing so would be an invitation to more violence. Similarly, the lack of enthusiasm for dividing Jerusalem must be seen as a vote of no confidence in the willingness of the PA to not use their foothold in the city to unleash a new wave of violence.

That said, I still think that if Abbas were to actually sign a peace deal recognizing the legitimacy of a Jewish state and giving up the “right of return” for the descendants of the 1948 Arab refugees, a majority of Israelis might vote to approve such an agreement even if it included the withdrawals that most now think would be foolish. But since few believe Abbas can do that, talk about giving up territory merely for the sake of an accord that seems a pipe dream is inevitably seen as quixotic.

This poll should serve as a reminder that the calls for Israel to take great risks in the name of peace in the absence of any indication the other side means business are bound to fall on deaf ears. Neither Prime Minister Netanyahu nor his people are likely to be scared into making such sacrifices by threats of future Palestinian violence, as Ignatius thinks is Kerry’s plan. In the absence of a genuine sea change in Arab political culture that would enable Abbas to credibly pledge to keep the peace, a majority of Israelis obviously think they are better off not weakening their security. If Israelis are largely immune to peace process enthusiasm, it is because they understand their antagonists a lot better than many Americans do.

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Which Candidate Cares More About Israel?

Ever since the last of a series of full-scale blowups between the Obama administration and Israel, Democrats have been desperately trying to convince Jewish voters that the president really is the Jewish state’s best friend. In order to do so, voters would have to ignore most of what had happened in the first three years of his presidency but they were able to argue that his decision not to blow up the U.S.-Israel alliance completely ought to serve as proof of his good intentions. That’s enough for many Jews whose partisan preferences leave them ready to believe the Democrats’ talking points. But while American voters, Jewish and non-Jewish who consider the question an important one, ponder the question of which presidential candidate is a better friend to Israel, the people with the most on the line in the Middle East also have an opinion.

The latest poll of Israeli views of the U.S. election is similar to previous surveys on the question of American leadership: they don’t trust President Obama. As the Jerusalem Post reports, a new Peace Index/Dahaf Institute poll shows that 2-1 majority of Israeli Jews think Mitt Romney cares more about them than the president. Forty percent of respondents said Romney “assigns more importance to defending Israeli national interests” while 19 percent said Obama did. Ten percent saw neither as being more supportive than the other while 25 percent said they didn’t know and six percent said “neither” backed their country.  Back in April a Smith Research/Jerusalem Post poll found that 60 percent of Israelis saw Obama as either pro-Palestinian or neutral in the Middle East conflict. All of which leads one to wonder why so many American Jews think they understand Obama’s views of the question better than Israelis.

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Ever since the last of a series of full-scale blowups between the Obama administration and Israel, Democrats have been desperately trying to convince Jewish voters that the president really is the Jewish state’s best friend. In order to do so, voters would have to ignore most of what had happened in the first three years of his presidency but they were able to argue that his decision not to blow up the U.S.-Israel alliance completely ought to serve as proof of his good intentions. That’s enough for many Jews whose partisan preferences leave them ready to believe the Democrats’ talking points. But while American voters, Jewish and non-Jewish who consider the question an important one, ponder the question of which presidential candidate is a better friend to Israel, the people with the most on the line in the Middle East also have an opinion.

The latest poll of Israeli views of the U.S. election is similar to previous surveys on the question of American leadership: they don’t trust President Obama. As the Jerusalem Post reports, a new Peace Index/Dahaf Institute poll shows that 2-1 majority of Israeli Jews think Mitt Romney cares more about them than the president. Forty percent of respondents said Romney “assigns more importance to defending Israeli national interests” while 19 percent said Obama did. Ten percent saw neither as being more supportive than the other while 25 percent said they didn’t know and six percent said “neither” backed their country.  Back in April a Smith Research/Jerusalem Post poll found that 60 percent of Israelis saw Obama as either pro-Palestinian or neutral in the Middle East conflict. All of which leads one to wonder why so many American Jews think they understand Obama’s views of the question better than Israelis.

The answer to that question is fairly obvious. It’s not that most Jewish Democrats really believe that Obama is sympathetic to the Jewish state. They have eyes and ears like the rest of us and can easily pick up the fact that, as veteran peace processor Aaron David Miller put it, “unlike [Bill] Clinton and George W. Bush, Obama isn’t in love with the idea of Israel.” It’s not just that most Jews aren’t single-issue Israel voters, it’s that for many of them, it doesn’t much matter. Others, including many liberals who do care about Israel, find reasons to grade him on a steep curve that allows him to pass muster because of his liberal positions on domestic issues.

But for that 10-25 percent of the Jewish electorate whose votes are in play this fall, the question of the president’s record on Israel will be important. Polls showing Israeli distrust of the president — which is getting deeper because of his lack of resolve on the Iranian nuclear threat — will make it even harder for Democrats to convince voters that he can be trusted to do the right thing for the Jewish state.

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What Do Israelis Know About Obama that American Jews Are Missing?

The Obama administration has been conducting an all-out charm offensive in recent months aimed at convincing American Jews that the president is Israel’s best friend. Polls have shown that the effort has not been enough to prevent a precipitous drop in his share of the prospective Jewish vote from the 78 percent he garnered in 2008. However, it will probably help him maintain a comfortable majority of Jewish votes in November as most of this predominantly liberal demographic is prepared to either ignore his past history of conflict with Israel or actually believes in the sincerity of his election-year conversion. But even as American Jews argue about Obama’s attitude toward Israel, the intended objects of the supposed solicitude continue to hold starkly different views about him.

A new Smith Research poll sponsored by the Jerusalem Post shows that although perceptions of Obama in Israel have improved in the last year, most Israelis don’t consider him much of a friend. The survey showed that 36 percent of Israelis believe Obama is neutral in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians with 24 percent seeing him as pro-Palestinian and an equal number perceiving him as pro-Israel while 16 percent expressed no opinion. These numbers make one wonder what it is that the three quarters of Israelis who don’t see him as being in favor of their country know that the majority of American Jews who think he is pro-Israel haven’t figured out.

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The Obama administration has been conducting an all-out charm offensive in recent months aimed at convincing American Jews that the president is Israel’s best friend. Polls have shown that the effort has not been enough to prevent a precipitous drop in his share of the prospective Jewish vote from the 78 percent he garnered in 2008. However, it will probably help him maintain a comfortable majority of Jewish votes in November as most of this predominantly liberal demographic is prepared to either ignore his past history of conflict with Israel or actually believes in the sincerity of his election-year conversion. But even as American Jews argue about Obama’s attitude toward Israel, the intended objects of the supposed solicitude continue to hold starkly different views about him.

A new Smith Research poll sponsored by the Jerusalem Post shows that although perceptions of Obama in Israel have improved in the last year, most Israelis don’t consider him much of a friend. The survey showed that 36 percent of Israelis believe Obama is neutral in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians with 24 percent seeing him as pro-Palestinian and an equal number perceiving him as pro-Israel while 16 percent expressed no opinion. These numbers make one wonder what it is that the three quarters of Israelis who don’t see him as being in favor of their country know that the majority of American Jews who think he is pro-Israel haven’t figured out.

The contrast between Israeli public opinion of the president and the views of American Jews is all the more startling when one realizes that these dismal numbers are actually a vast improvement for Obama over past polls conducted by the same firm. In the summer of 2009 after the first fight picked by the president with Israel and his Cairo speech to the Arab world in which he equated the plight of the Palestinians with the Holocaust, only 6 percent of Israelis saw him as their ally while 50 percent saw him as pro-Palestinian. Last year after his ambush of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu in which he expressed support for the 1967 borders being the starting point for future Middle East negotiations, only 12 percent of Israelis saw him as pro-Israel.

While few American Jews are single issue voters and most consider liberal positions on domestic issues a higher priority than support for the Jewish state when choosing a president, Israelis are only focused on whether the resident of the White House is seeking to undermine their security or force them into unwanted and dangerous concessions. That’s why, although it is fair for Democrats to argue that Obama has not sought to unravel the U.S.-Israel security alliance, most Israelis still see the president as either neutral or hostile to their fate.

The opinions of Israelis ought not be dispositive to American voters on any issue. But those Democrats who will spend the year loudly proclaiming Obama to be Israel’s best friend ever to sit in the White House might want to take a moment and consider the fact that most of the people who they claim to support have a very different view of the question.

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