Remember when President Obama's approval rating among Israelis was in the single digits? That was August 2009 when it bottomed at 4%. A lot has changed since then, and a Pew Research Center survey released this week showed Obama "enjoys the confidence of 61% of Israelis." Among Israeli Jews, 64% rate Obama favorably vs. 48% of Arabs.
During his first term Obama made some dumb moves – notably his call for a total settlement freeze and his failure to visit Israel – and Bibi Netanyahu exploited that with some even dumber efforts to meddle in American politics (an old habit he apparently finds hard to break). It got worse last year when Bibi virtually endorsed Mitt Romney, who returned the favor by suggesting he'd farm out U.S. Mideast policy to his former colleague at Boston Consulting Group in 1976.
Things didn't quite work out as Bibi, Mitt, Sheldon Adelson and their Republican pals intended. Romney was trounced and Netanyahu took a drubbing at the polls but managed to survive, weaker but still in charge. And perhaps a little wiser. Bibi and Barry decided it was time to bury the hatchet somewhere other than each other's backs and behave in a way that better reflects the close strategic, diplomatic and security relationship that their governments had been forged over the previous four years. Obama began by correcting one of the biggest mistakes of his first term and made Israel the first stop on his first post-reelection foreign trip. It proved a big success, and the numbers show it.
Why the big change?
There was an election six months ago. Republicans spent nearly $1 billion trying to defeat Obama, and an unusually large chunk of that targeted Jewish and other supporters of Israel, including American ex pats living in Israel. The GOP's smear and fear campaign, which sought to portray Obama as pro-Palestinian and an unreliable partner of Israel, if not outright hostile, was a colossal failure. After all that, Obama still got 70% of the Jewish vote and Romney stayed well below levels of Ronald Reagan and even George H.W. Bush's first election.
But never fear, they'll keep trying to use Israel as a wedge issue among Jewish voters simply because they've got so little else that attracts Jewish support. Not their approach to immigration reform, health care, protecting Medicare and Social Security, not on making the wealthy like Adelson pay a more equitable share of taxes, nor on the environment, gun control, consumer protection and church-state separation.
Here are some interesting findings in the Pew poll; I recommend looking at the rest of it:
• Only15% of Palestinians expressed confidence in Obama to do the right thing in world affairs, and 81% said they have little or no confidence in him.
• Israel's image throughout the Middle East is "overwhelmingly negative" and not much better in Europe, where majorities expressed negative opinions of the Jewish state. Only in America did a majority (57%) give Israel a positive rating.
• While most Israelis believe a way can be found for an independent Palestinian state to exist peacefully with their country, most Palestinians disagree, and a plurality "believes armed struggle rather than negotiations or nonviolent resistance is the best way to achieve statehood."
• About half the Americans surveyed (53%) say they sympathize more with Israel than the Palestinians (14%), a figure virtually unchanged since 2007.
• About half (49%) of Israelis would like the U.S. to play a greater role in the peace process while only 15% want less involvement; among Palestinians 41% want a larger U.S. role and 15% want less.
• 93% of Israeli Jews and 95% of Israeli Arabs think their country and the United States "have a good relationship."
That last item led the National Jewish Democratic Council to kvell, "This poll is the latest demonstration that the more Israelis get to know President Obama, the more their confidence in him increases."
So what took him so long?
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