There’s a new Israel-US survey, but don’t be fooled by the headlines

March 1, 2012

A new Shibley Telhami survey is already being celebrated by various ignoramuses and hacks as one that “undercuts Netanyahu on Iran” or that makes the “Washington conversation” seem skewed against Obama. The survey contains some interesting data, and also a lot of data from which nothing can be extracted. So let’s try to separate the substance from the spin:

Israelis on attacking Iran

Let’s begin with Iran, where most reports on this survey highlighted the fact that, “Only 19 of percent of all Israelis favored a go-it-alone strike by Israel, while 42 percent supported a strike only with U.S. backing, and 34 percent opposed any strike”. Interesting, is it not?

Well, not really, if one considers the way the question was framed: “There has been increased talk of a military strike by Israel against Iran’s nuclear facilities, even though the United States, the UK and Germany have advised against it.  What do you think Israel should do?” Three options were presented to respondents: “Strike Iran’s nuclear facilities, even without the support of the US”, “Strike only if Israel gains at least American support”, “Do not strike”. Ask any serious pollster and you’ll get the same answer: Framing a question in such way is asking for a specific answer.

And there’s more. Two slides on in the survey, Israelis are asked: “Given America’s recommendation that Israel not strike Iran, what do you believe the U.S. government’s reaction would be if Israel strikes anyway?” Amazingly, 66% of them believe that the US will either “Join the war on Israel’s behalf” (27%) or “support Israel diplomatically” but would not “provide military assistance” (39%). Does this mean that Israelis do not want to attack without prior American approval, even though they believe that the US will support Israel after an attack anyway? Or maybe what it means is that Israelis want American support before an attack, and believe such support is already a given?

So what am I saying, that Israelis really want to attack Iran and this survey is misleading? Not exactly. A Haaretz poll from three months ago found that 41% of Israelis support an attack and 39% oppose it. Telhami himself had similar finding in his Brookings poll of late 2011 (43% supporting and 41% opposing an attack). These surveys did not make American consent part of the equation.

But when a survey includes a reference to the question of American coordination, cooperation and consent, Israelis have clear preference for a coordinated attack. A Channel 2 News survey from late February found that 65% of Israelis oppose an attack without “coordination” with the US. Does it mean they’d oppose any attack as long as President Obama express opposition to such action? I don’t think we have enough data to jump to such conclusion, and am not at all sure Israeli respondents have the information they need for them to make up their mind on such question.

Israelis on Obama

Israelis want Obama to be reelected as President – or do they? In the Telhami poll, Obama outperforms his four GOP rivals, Romney, Santorum, Gingrich and Paul, among Israeli Jews. This sounds counterintuitive all those who believe that Israelis have special dislike for Obama. Apparently – and this had been apparent for quite some time now – they don’t.

They also don’t especially like Obama. Just look at the numbers Obama is getting against his rivals. 32% against Romney, 34% against Santorum, 31% against Gingrich, 34% against Paul. Does it not seem odd that it is always 31-34%, without much regard to the specific rival? Not at all: thirty-something percent is Obama’s approval rating among Jewish Israelis. Not as low as the 6% it once was believed to be, but still much lower than the number of Israelis wanting Bush to win reelection back in 2004 (see here), and still lower than the number of Israelis wanting John McCain to win against Obama back in 2008 (46%).

In fact, when Obama ran against McCain in 2008, the percentage of Israelis wanting him to win was surprisingly similar to the percentage of supporters he has in the new Telhami survey: 34%. In other words: It is reasonable to conclude that the percentage of Israeli Obama supporters hasn’t changed much in the last three years. Thirty-something percent still want him as President, while the others either have already decided that they prefer the Republican candidate or just don’t know enough to have an opinion (believe me, most Israelis on the street would not be able to answer the question “Who is Rick Santorum?”).

Consider this: Israelis who do not go for Obama against Paul see no real difference between Gingrich and Paul – does this make any sense other than concluding that these names do not at all sound familiar to most of them?

My bottom line on this topic is somewhat similar to the one I had on Iran. The new survey says something, but not quite to the extent that political spin would have it seem. Yes, Israelis’ approval of Obama is up, and there’s a significant group of Israelis who want him to be reelected. No, he is not yet “popular” in Israel – popular American presidents get to 70-80% approval among Israelis. And no, we don’t yet know that most Jewish Israelis prefer Obama. If I’d had to take a wild guess so early in the game – when we don’t even know for sure who the GOP candidate is going to be – I’d assume that more Israelis would eventually back the Republican rival over Obama than the number presented by the current poll.

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