American foreign policy Barack Obama Benjamin Netanyahu Israel Israeli occupation Israeli settlements Middle East peace process

Obama should not be afraid of AIPAC

Despite recent tension with Israel, President Obama’s approval ratings have remained consistently high among American Jews, according to a new J Street poll. He was viewed favorably by 62% in March compared to 64% in October, 2009. That is true even though Americans as a whole are less enamored of him than they used to be. Other poll data show a rising confidence that the country is on the right track under Obama.

The poll was taken on March 17th through 19th, about a week after the firestorm that erupted when Vice President Biden’s trip to Israel was greeted by an announcement of settlement construction in East Jerusalem. Apparently none of the squabbling diminished most American Jews’ affection for Obama.

That should be encouraging news to the Administration as it tries to stop the folly of Israeli settlement construction and preserve the chance, however slim, for peace talks that accomplish something. Another tidbit from that poll should also be encouraging: when respondents were asked to choose the top two issues they will use to decide their 2010 Congressional votes, Israel ranked 7th. It was deemed to be less important than the economy, health care, the deficit and government spending, Social Security and Medicare, and terrorism and national security. Israel was given the same ranking as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Only 10% of the respondents chose Israel as one of their top two issues.

No doubt Obama is hearing warnings about the political costs of even minor tussles with Israel. But while American Jews do have concerns about Israel and its security, their votes are based mainly on the same bread-and-butter issues that other Americans care about.

If health care reform is implemented without too many setbacks, the economy doesn’t do a nosedive and the lunatic fringe keeps vying for control of the Republican party, it seems likely that Obama will retain his popularity with Jewish voters if he stands firm on Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem and elsewhere. More than 70% of American Jews say the U.S. should play an active role in addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict even if it means pressuring or publicly disagreeing with both sides, according to the J Street poll. And 55% agree the “U.S. did the right thing by strongly criticizing the Israeli announcement of new housing in East Jerusalem during the Vice President’s visit.”

Of course, the right-wing Jewish minority is making noise, and noise matters to presidents as well as members of Congress. Right now, MJ Rosenberg complains, AIPAC is pushing two Congressional letters urging that there be “no space” between American and Israeli policy. Obama should shrug off those letters and keep his eyes on the prize. Most American Jews will back him.

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