Inter Press Service
U.S. Jews, who, next to African Americans, have constituted the minority most supportive of Barack Obama, are growing more sceptical of his performance and increasingly hawkish on Iran, according to a new poll released Tuesday by the American Jewish Committee (AJC).
The survey of 800 self-identified Jewish Americans, the latest in an annual series that stretches back more than a decade, also found a marked decline in confidence over Obama's handling of U.S.-Israel relations compared to eight months ago when the AJC published its last poll.
While 55 percent of respondents voiced approval – and only 39 percent disapproval – of the Obama administration's handling of U.S.-Israeli relations last March, a mere plurality of 49 percent in the latest poll said they approved now, compared to 45 percent who voiced disapproval.
Support for U.S. military action against Iran "to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons… if diplomacy and sanctions fail" rose from 53 percent to 59 percent since last March, while opposition to such a course fell from 42 percent to 35 percent over the same period.
As recently as its 2008 survey, the AJC found that 42 percent of respondents opposed an attack, while a 47-percent plurality supported one.
"I don't think these results are surprising, especially given the drumbeat of Islamophobia in the American media, the constant pounding on the Iran threat by Israeli politicians and their supporters here, and the Obama administration's repeated failure to explain what it thinks it is doing in the Middle East," said Stephen Walt, a Harvard international relations expert and co-author of the controversial 2007 book, "The Israel Lobby".
"They've let their critics define the narrative, while doing nothing to give anyone on either the left or the right any confidence in their leadership," he added. "If I'd been asked, I'd have said my approval of the job he's doing was pretty low, too, though I obviously don't agree with the idea of attacking Iran."
The survey suggested that the hawkish views of the right- wing leadership of major Jewish organisations, including the AJC itself, have been gaining traction with the more-liberal Jewish public over the last eight months.
It was released just three weeks before mid-term elections in which Republicans, whose leadership has strongly assailed Obama over his sometimes rocky relations with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his efforts to engage Iran diplomatically, are expected to regain control of at least one of the two houses of Congress.
AJC president David Harris appeared to echo those Republican themes Tuesday, claiming that "the nervousness of American Jews about two of our nation's top foreign policy issues and how our leadership is responding" was "the most disturbing" of the survey's findings.
It was the first time the AJC has conducted two polls within a year.
"Things have been very fluid in the Middle East, and we thought this was a good opportunity to look again at the Iran nuclear threat, how it's being handled, and U.S.-Israel relations and the peace process," said AJC spokesman Kenneth Bandler.
"And we wanted to gauge opinion for the mid-term elections," he added.
Indeed, the latest poll offered good news for Republicans. One-third of respondents said they believed "the country would be better off if the Republicans controlled Congress". Historically, Jewish support for Republicans has hovered around 20 percent.
Despite their relatively small number – about two percent of the total U.S. population and about three percent of voters in most elections – Jewish Americans are major donors to political campaigns, accounting for as much as 25 percent of all financial contributions to national campaigns and as much as 40 percent of all contributions to Democratic candidates, in particular.
Republicans have tried hard in recent years – albeit with little success until now – to divert that funding in their direction, or, if not, to at least persuade Jewish funders to withhold contributions to their Democratic rivals.
Their courtship of Jewish voters and contributors has consisted primarily of stressing their virtually unconditional support for Israel, particularly under Netanyahu, who has intimate and long-standing ties to leading U.S. neo-conservatives and the Christian Right that make up the right-wing core of the Republican Party.
The latest poll suggests that their strategy may be paying off, as a number of neo-conservative bloggers boasted Tuesday.
"In answer to the question of whether anything can wean Jews off their sick addiction to the Democratic Party, the answer seems to be 'Obama,'" wrote Jennifer Rubin at 'Commentary's' blog, 'Contentions'.
She noted that Obama's overall approval rating among Jews had fallen from 57 percent last March to 51 percent in September, just a few percentage points above the rating given him by the general public.
That observation was also underlined by University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. "A 50 percent positive rating for a Democratic president among Jews is, frankly, terrible," he told the New York Jewish Week.
At the same time, the survey suggested that Jewish disillusionment with Obama, like the general public's, may have as much as or perhaps more to do with the struggling economy than with his Middle East policy.
His lowest rating – 45 percent – came in response to a question about his handling of the economy. On a related question, significantly more respondents said the economy and health care will loom larger in their vote in the upcoming Congressional elections than foreign policy or Israel.
Moreover, the respondents' general substantive views about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have remained remarkably consistent over the past eight months, according to the survey. Like the one in March, it found strong scepticism about the chances of reaching a negotiated settlement; a narrow plurality in favour of creating a Palestinian state; a 60-percent majority opposed to ceding any part of Jerusalem to a future Palestine; and a comparable majority in favour of dismantling at least "some" Jewish settlements on the West Bank as part of a peace agreement.
Nonetheless, the survey suggested that, for at least some U.S. Jews, Obama may have emerged as the loser in his contretemps with Netanyahu over settlements earlier this year.
In addition to the 45 percent of Jews who expressed disapproval of his handling of U.S.-Israeli relations, the survey found that approval of Netanyahu's handling of bilateral ties has risen – from 57 percent in March to 62 percent.
The survey found a similar loss of confidence in Obama's handling of the Iran nuclear issue. While a plurality of 47 percent approved of his performance last March, a 46-percent plurality now disapprove, according to the survey, which was conducted from early September to early October.
And, despite his success at marshalling international support for tough sanctions against Tehran, 72 percent of respondents said such measures have little or no chance of stopping Iran from building nuclear weapons, compared to 68 percent who took that position eight months ago.
Consistent with the increase in support for U.S. military action against Iran to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons, the survey found that support for an Israeli military attack has also risen – from 62 percent last March to 70 percent.
On other international issues, the survey found that Turkey, a NATO ally, is not considered a "friend" of the U.S. or Israel by, respectively, 50 percent and 71 percent of U.S. Jews – no doubt a reflection of the reaction to the deterioration in Turkish-Israeli relations that began with the 2008-9 Gaza War and was accelerated by Israel's deadly attack on a Turkish ship carrying humanitarian supplies to Gaza in May.