OBAMA’S TRIP TO ISRAEL: TEMPORARY PROGRESS BUT ENDURING UNCERTAINTY

On the occasion of President Obama’s first trip to Israel as president, it seems appropriate to evaluate current perceptions of the increasingly intricate relationship between the U.S. and Israel.

By almost any measure, the president landed in Israel with relatively low expectations on a trip that was widely seen as an effort to remediate lingering tensions between the Administration and Israeli officials (or the Israeli public) as Obama began his second term.  Keep in mind, Israel/U.S. relations have been precarious over the president’s first term, stemming from a series of missteps including the president’s 2009 speech in Cairo and an open-microphone incident with former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, all of which have caused many Israelis to doubt Obama’s commitment to the Jewish state.

In fact, just prior to the president’s visit to Israel, only 10{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of Israelis viewed Obama favorably, while a full 38{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} believed he is hostile to Israel, according to a poll conducted in March by Maagar Mohot Institute and Maariv in Israel.  For being our closest ally in a hostile region, these numbers warrant concern.

From the U.S. perspective, commitment to Israel remains strong as a plurality of Americans have consistently sympathized more with Israel, despite recent conflicts which have erupted in the region.  As can be seen in the chart below, Pew Research Center has been tracking Middle East sympathies for well over a decade and in their March poll they found fully 49{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of Americans side more with Israel compared to just 12{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} for the Palestinians.

Chart 1

This data from Pew Research Center does indicate some demographic differences, mainly along partisan and generational lines.  Only 36{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of younger voters (18-29 year olds) sympathize with Israel, compared to majorities of Americans 50-64 (59{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) and those over 65 (54{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}).   This is partially explained by the propensity of younger voters to hold no opinion about the conflict (34{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}), rather than any overwhelming support for the Palestinians (19{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}).  Also, there is a notable partisan split as Republicans are vastly more sympathetic towards Israel (66{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}), compared to Democrats (39{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) and Independents (49{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}).

Strong sympathies toward Israel often help shape our strong alliance.  According to a recent Fox News Poll conducting in March, fully 77{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of Americans believe Israel is an ally (43{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} say a strong ally).  Compared to other countries, only Canada (93{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}), Great Britain (91{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}), France (85{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) and Germany (83{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) are more closely considered allies with the U.S.

However, Obama’s first term in the region has been defined by a growing uncertainty about his views towards Israel.  In June 2009, near the beginning of his term, Pew Research Center conducted a poll where Americans were asked about Obama’s views towards the region.  Six percent (6{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) believed Obama favored Israel too much, 17{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} believed he favored the Palestinians too much, 62{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} thought he struck the right balance, and 14{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} didn’t know.  Flash forward to March 2013, where the most recent polling by Pew shows that only 41{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} believe his is striking the right balance (a drop of 21{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} from 2009), while nearly a third of Americans (29{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) don’t know where he stands.

Uncertainty over Obama’s stance toward Israel comes at a time when roughly two-thirds of Americans (66{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) believe there will NOT come a time when Israel and other Arab nations will never live in peace.  As seen below, polling prior to Obama’s visit is the highest percentage of doubters ever polled by CNN/ORC, dating back to 1997.

 Chart 2

Further, this sentiment is consistent across partisan lines, as majorities of Democrats (54{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}), Independents (67{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) and Republicans (78{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) do not believe there will be peace in the region.

In the short term, the president’s good-will diplomatic trip, ripe with rhetoric-filled speeches, was successful in at least temporarily reaffirming his commitment to Israel in the region, without making any substantive commitments.  According to a recent CBS news poll conducted March 20-24 after Obama’s return, more Americans indicated they approve of Obama’s handling of Israel, 44{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} approve-33{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} disapprove, which is an improvement over a national Bloomberg poll released last March which showed voters split, 40{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}-42{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}.  Still, almost a quarter of Americans (23{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) remain unsure about Obama’s handling of Israel.

In the long term, we are still left with lingering questions about such issues as mutually agreed measures to prevent Iran’s nuclear program from developing weapons, chemical warfare in Syria, enduring unrest from the Arab Spring and next steps for peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

So the question remains – which president are we going to see moving forward to tackle these challenges?  A president who reverts back to the passive approach of his first term, or a president who pursues a proactive, abiding alliance with Israel and uses the diplomatic capital garnered during his visit to finally become a substance-driven leader in this important region?

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