Israel Lobby Is in a Public Opinion Pickle: Jewish Voters Went for Obama Big Time, and He's No Neocon

While Prime Minister Netanyahu was meeting President Obama at the White House Monday morning, the Zogbys -- John Zogby, president/CEO of Zogby International, a polling firm, and Jim Zogby, his brother, president of the Arab American Institute -- were a few blocks away at the New America Foundation to discuss the surprising results of an interactive poll about US attitudes toward the conflict in the Middle East.

The results suggest that Obama would have strong support for a hands-on US diplomatic effort to forge an Israel-Palestine deal, even if it means pressure on Israel.

According to the poll, when asked if the United States should "get tough" with Israel in order to back up its call for an end to settlement construction in the occupied West Bank, fully 50 percent of Americans said yes, with just 19 percent saying "do nothing," and 32 percent not sure.

Even though Americans have a high opinion of Israel (by a 71-21 margin) and a low opinion of the Palestinians (by a 25-66 margin) in terms of favorability, overall -- not just in regard to settlements -- Americans say that it's "time for the United States to get tough with Israel" by a surprising 45-44 margin.

Hiding in those numbers, however, is an overwhelming partisan gap, and that is the really striking thing about the Zogby poll. From my notes:

Asked whether the interests of Israel and the US are identical, only 28 percent of Obama voters agreed, while 59 percent disagreed. Among McCain voters, it was the reverse: 78 percent of McCain voters said US and Israel interests were identical and 15 percent said they are not.

Asked about Netanyahu, the favorability rating for Obama voters was 29-49 percent, while the rating for McCain voters was a lopsided 82-9 percent.

And on the crucial question, is it time to get tough with Israel, the gap was a veritable Grand Canyon. Among Obama voters, 71 percent agreed and 18 percent disagreed. Among McCain voters, 16 percent agreed and 73 percent disagreed.

Similar divides showed up on virtually every question asked.

What does it mean? It says that President Obama will have the support of his base, including Democrats and Independents, if he decides to force the issue in coming months with the Israeli leader. According to John Zogby, part of the reason is demographic: black voters, Hispanic voters, and young (18-30) voters are far less attached to the US-Israeli special relationship than are older, more traditional voters, especially among Christian evangelicals.

Obama, being the cautious soul that he is, isn't likely to force a showdown, at least not anytime soon. But his meeting with Netanyahu today showed clearly that he isn't backing down to Netanyahu's bluster and fear-mongering over Iran.

It also shows that the vaunted Israel lobby is in a pickle. American Jews voted overwhelmingly for Obama, with 76 percent of US Jews voting Democratic in 2008. "American Jews are mostly in the peace camp," says John Zogby. That means the opposition to Obama will come first and foremost from the ultra-right wing of the Israel lobby, such as the allies of Likud, the Zionist Organization of America, and hard-line neoconservatives, along with their allies on the Christian right and among the Republican Party's right, including most of its congressional wing.

But middle-of-the-road, moderate, and especially liberal Jews are likely to back Obama. That's a dynamic that can isolate AIPAC, the central player in the Israel lobby. If it plays its cards wrong, AIPAC might find itself cut off from its base among pro-Israeli American Jews. So far, AIPAC -- and Netanyahu -- are hoping that they can stall Obama's Middle East peace plan until something, anything, erupts to derail it. But I think Obama is determined to press ahead.


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