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J Street poll: for some American Jews, “evenhandedness” doesn’t go far enough

There has been much ado about the latest J Street poll of American Jews. The most important finding, as noted in the survey analysis, is that “Jews want America to be much more aggressive in its Middle East peace efforts than it is today.”

87% of respondents said they supported the United States playing an active role in helping the parties resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. 75% supported this role even if it meant the U.S. publicly disagreeing with both sides, and 70% supported it even if meant applying pressure to both sides.

That is good news for those of us who think toughminded American diplomacy is the only feasible way to break the impasse between Israelis and Palestinians. But it isn’t surprising to anyone who’s tracked American Jewish opinion. In 1998, when the Clinton Administration was squabbling with Prime Minister Netanyahu, a poll sponsored by Israel Policy Forum found that, by a 9-1 margin, American Jews wanted the administration to take an “evenhanded” approach to the Israel-Palestinian dispute and 84 percent agreed that the United States should “pressure” both Arafat and Netanyahu. In my book, I cite a number of other polls to show that, during the past decade, most American Jews have endorsed leaning on both sides, rather than just one side, when necessary.

But the new J Street survey shows something new, something different, something that has gotten no attention: there is a solid bloc of Jews in the U.S. who would support their government if it pressured only Israel.

When revealing this little nugget in their analysis, the pollsters, Gerstein Agne, look at the glass as half-full for supporters of Israel:

“We introduced an additional component to this exercise in this latest survey, and provided half the sample with the language cited above [about U.S. engagement] and provided the other half of the sample with language that focused exclusively on publicly disagreeing with or pressuring just Israel instead of both Israelis and Arabs. [emphasis added by DF].

“Not surprisingly, support for America playing an active role drops off considerably if it means disagreeing only with Israel (support drops 88 to 58 percent) or pressuring only Israel (support drops from 88 to 57 percent). These findings underscore how strongly Jews want the U.S. to assert itself to achieve peace, but also how much more effective it is when America is even-handed and addresses both sides instead of just one side.”

True, but the findings also show that large numbers of American Jews, perhaps even a majority, have moved beyond favoring evenhandedness or honest brokerage. These people are simply in no mood to put up with an Israeli government that takes more steps that will preclude the possibility of a 2-state solution, although the pollsters don’t spell out specific examples of Israeli recalcitrance or military adventurism when testing that proposition.

It doesn’t matter if this represents the sentiments of a majority of Jews in the U.S. It obviously reflects the views of a good many of them. While no doubt some of them have always felt this way, it is likely that these numbers offer more evidence of radicalization and growing alienation from Israel, especially among younger Jewish voters. Will Congress and the Obama team hear from them, and from the larger group that is comfortable with pressure on both sides if and when it is necessary? That remains to be seen.

But the results ought to be troubling to Benjamin Netanyahu. So should another nugget from the poll, which has also gone unnoticed: 72% of American Jews who give money to political campaigns oppose Israeli settlement expension. The pollsters note: “In fact, political donors stand out from the overall population on a variety of areas, including their more Democratic and progressive self-identification, greater support for peace initiatives and more negative attitudes toward Avigdor Lieberman and Benjamin Netanyahu.”

This is further proof of what I’ve been pointing out for quite some time: although political donations from hawkish American Jews get all the attention from the cabal watchers, most “Jewish money” in politics comes from those who support Israel’s peace camp (whatever is left of it, that is). The problem is that this support is passive. Too few of them identify their concerns about the occupation or their endorsement of tough American diplomacy when they write their checks or call their Congressperson. That is one of the habits that J Street–working in tandem with allied groups like Brit Tzedek v’ Shalom and Americans for Peace Now–is trying to change. Hope it’s not too late…

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