Monday, May 4, 2009

What Israelis Think of Obama and the United States

A recent poll gives some good sense of how Israelis are thinking about their own policies, the region, and the United States.

But before discussing that it should be pointed out once again that Israelis in general, and especially the younger generation among them, have gone through a series of experiences which make them skeptical about radicals becoming moderates, whether international promises to Israel would be kept, regarding Israeli concessions bringing peace and popularity, and in general on the effectiveness of lions laying down with lambs.

Having tried these things, they saw this approach didn’t work and they’ve also seen that the much of the world didn’t learn that lesson yet.

Thus, 66 percent of Israelis questioned in the poll, conducted by the BESA Center and ADL, said they’d support an attack on Iran if international efforts didn’t stop that country’s nuclear weapons’ program. And 75 percent of those people would do so even if the Obama administration opposed such an action. People below the age of 40 are even more willing to have an attack launched. They’d like to have a future.

My view is that military action should be avoided if possible. I’m not enthusiastic about it even if Iran gets nuclear weapons but if the judgment is that the Tehran regime thus poses an existential threat to Israel thereby, it would be necessary to act. However, one should not underestimate the value of anti-missile defense systems especially if—as will be the case—Iran has very few such weapons.

Another interesting point from the poll is that Israelis are very much inclined toward Realism and strategic thinking. Half those polled, 50 percent, said the most important factor in U.S.-Israel relations is because Israel is a strategic partner for the United States. But only half that number, 25 percent, attributed it to American Jewry’s role and just 15 percent put it down to both countries being democracies with common values.

Of course, that’s the problem with polls. All three factors are present and most of those queried know that, but the priorities given show they don’t depend on sentiment.

Actually, at least one additional point should be added in shaping U.S. policy: American repulsion at the behavior of radical, aggressive and anti-American regimes and movements. Even if a president doesn't start out that way, reading intelligence briefings and experiences in dealing with governments that don't want to be friends, break all their promises, and have conflicting interests have an effect over time.

Regarding personalities, though, Israelis are notably romantic about the United States. There is an aspect in which views of America are extensions of the Hollywood syndrome, in which the United States is viewed mainly as a source of excitement, entertainment, and glamor. Israelis also know very little about American domestic politics and issues.

American Jews are still ga-ga about President Barack Obama, given accurate or inaccurate symbolism of what he means to them. No doubt, these beliefs include viewing his election as a victory over racism, seeing him as an embodiment of traditional liberalism, and subconsciously seeing him as protector against supposed Christian fundamentalist neo-Cossack hordes. His popularity rate among them stands at around 78 percent.

Israelis simply see Obama as young, colorful, different, new, and exciting. While 60 percent have a favorable opinion of him, only 14 percent are unfavorable. But then this also emerges from a strongly pro-American standpoint, not exactly common even in the post-Bush world nowadays. A positive attitude toward America is held by 72 percent of Israelis.

What do they think of U.S. policies? Well, it’s still early to tell. Asked what they think of Obama’s attitudes toward Israel, they approved by a 32-21 percent margin while 47 percent said—rather honestly—they didn’t know yet. But they have their doubts, too. While 38 percent saw his attitude toward Israel as friendly, 33 percent saw it as neutral, and 8 percent as unfriendly.

And a whopping 76 percent believe the United States will help Israel if its existence is threatened. The problem, of course, as with the Iran nuclear issue, is how one defines existential threats.

How to account for the results of this poll? Israelis are optimists in their view of America just as they are cynical realists in their perceptions of the region. They also expect, from a Realist perspective, that interests and situations will force Obama administration policy back into a more traditional mode. So far—though both events and public opinion could change very quickly should events warrant—they’re right at least regarding the relatively narrow issue of direct U.S.-Israel relations.


  1. We are trying to verify this is not an hoax, but it is unlikely, since Spanish activists met with some of these members of Congress

    From Madrid, Shalom


  3. Israel needs to remember that in international politics, there are no friends, only alliances and interests can and do change with time. That's the quintessential definition of Realism.


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