How Israelis See Obama
It’s not what you think -- and it may not even matter, compared to how they see Israel's own situation.
BY AMJAD ATALLAH, DANIEL LEVY
This article also appears in Foreign Policy
Perhaps a U.S. president's approval rating among Israeli citizens is somewhat trivial. After all, Barack Obama's re-election will be decided in Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, not in Haifa, Tel Aviv, and Netanya. Nevertheless, the notion persists that a U.S. president's approval rating in Israel can significantly affect his ability to conclude a comprehensive peace agreement. That is why Obama's alleged rock-bottom 4 percent approval rating among Israelis -- a result within the margin of error -- has become cause for concern.
In fact, however, the number is a red herring. Our own survey results suggest that the stalemate in the peace agreement has little to do with Israeli perceptions of Obama -- which are far more favorable than one might think -- but is actually more deeply linked to Israeli complacency and comfort with the status quo.
The 4 percent figure, now a ubiquitous marker of Obama's failure in the Middle East, originally came from a Jerusalem Post survey this summer. But it wasn't an approval rating. The survey question asked whether Israelis believed Obama was "more pro-Israel," rather than "more pro-Palestinian" or neutral. The Western media have adopted this statistic (as in this recent New York Times editorial) often to argue that the president doesn't have the Israeli support necessary to bolster his efforts in the peace process.
But the number is misleading. To clarify Israeli public opinion, we commissioned a poll of 1,000 Israelis, undertaken by Gerstein Agne Strategic Communications and recently released by the New America Foundation, shedding new light on Obama's actual standing in Israel. And the bottom line is that, particularly given how little Obama has invested in speaking directly to the Israeli public, he is viewed in a relatively positive light. The favorability rating our results show, 41 percent (with 37 percent unfavorable) is 10 times that claimed by the Jerusalem Post. While this is not astronomically high for a U.S. president, it is notably stronger than the favorability ratings for Israel's foreign and defense ministers, and a mere seven points below that of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
This is not to say that Israelis don't have concerns about Obama: For instance, 50 percent believe he is weak on terrorism, and only 42 percent agree that he supports Israel.
In a panel this week at the New America Foundation, Gil Tamary of Israel's Channel 10 News explained that much of Obama's relative unpopularity in Israel is a direct consequence of the Israeli press's daily attacks on him. But based on our survey results, should Obama decide to make a direct pitch to the Israeli public, his starting position would be one of relative strength. Obama has not yet reached out to Israelis in the way he has to the Muslim world, with his historic trips to Egypt and Turkey. A similarly momentous state visit to Israel could build a tremendous amount of goodwill with an already receptive Israeli public.
However, when it comes to building peace in the long term, the poll's other findings on Israeli public opinion may prove even more consequential for an administration that finds itself at an impasse. According to the poll, Israelis would support any peace agreement reached under Netanyahu by a margin of 59 to 34 percent. They even favor a U.S.-defined peace deal, like the one attempted by President Bill Clinton at Taba in 2001, by 53 to 45 percent. The only problem is that Israelis do not seem to think that peace with the Palestinians and neighboring states is an urgent priority or that its absence carries any sufficiently immediate and negative consequences.
So in effect, Obama's popularity or lack thereof has little to do with the prospects for peace. The real problem is, simply, Israelis are happy with the situation as it stands and have little motivation to change it. Only by a small majority of 4 percentage points do Israelis believe that they cannot shoulder the economic and security burdens of the status quo, and even fewer think that U.S. support for Israel will decline if there is no peace (by 49 to 47 percent, within the margin of error).
Given the daunting challenge of moving a number of the 500,000 Israeli settlers living beyond the green line, the country's original 1949 borders, (or leaving some under a future Palestinian sovereignty), one begins to understand why the current cost-benefit calculation weighs in favor of maintaining the status quo.
If there's any encouraging news for the Israeli government in our results, it's the pronounced Israeli capacity for pragmatism. This is evidenced in Israeli popular support for Netanyahu's negotiations with Hamas over a prisoner exchange, border-crossing issues, and informal understandings on a cease-fire. Although only 36 percent of Israelis consider their own prime minister "honest and trustworthy," according to our results (this compares with 55 percent who attribute these qualities to Obama), a commanding 69 percent approve of Netanyahu's handling of security. Indeed, the poll suggests that Netanyahu has far more wiggle room on the Palestinian issue than is generally assumed.
In the end, the poll shows that Israelis care most about regular bread-and-butter issues. When asked what would be their top reasons to support a peace, a "more normal life for our children" and "economic growth" come in first and second (polling 50 and 37 percent, respectively). Even recognition by 22 Arab states -- so ardently pursued by the administration and promoted by Congress -- motivates only 15 percent of Israelis.
In other words, Israelis see few reasons not to continue the occupation and are perhaps being offered the wrong kinds of incentives for choosing a different path. The behavior of Israel's leadership is consistent with a short-term political calculation that Israelis aren't willing to disrupt the present scenario. Continuing and even entrenching the occupation, for example, avoids hard and coalition-threatening political choices at home, incurs the most minimal international and domestic costs, and is not seen to defer new and meaningful benefits that Israelis would enjoy conditional on a peace deal. For any new peace effort to have a chance at breaking the logjam, then, its starting point will need to be the creation of a new architecture of incentives and disincentives -- and Obama's popularity, or lack thereof, will be left up to the people of Virginia.