December 11, 2018

So, is Obama now the Israelis’ new political darling?

I had to go to the doctor’s yesterday, and luckily, he was one of those doctors who also reads the paper from time to time, and not just any paper – but Maariv, the paper for which I write a weekly column in Hebrew. Last week, I wrote about South Carolina (he thought it was North Carolina and I had to correct him) and the Republican primaries, so a political conversation ensued.

“What should we think about Obama?” the doctor asked. That is one question I hear a lot these days. Then he told me the old joke about the freezing bird in the tundra: A cow passes by, and its warm and cozy manure saves the bird. Then the bird sings, and a cat passes by and fishes it from the pile of manure. The moral of the story: the bird gets eaten.

You’ve probably heard this story, but the doctor told it while talking about Presidents Carter and Obama. If they crap on your head, it isn’t always bad; if they save you from the pile of crap, it isn’t always good. And if you’re stuck in a pile of crap – better not sing. Bottom line: my doctor still isn’t sure if President Obama is the cow or the cat. Many Israelis might feel the same, as a new poll by Brookings’ Shibley Telhami demonstrated yesterday.

This survey of Israelis contains many interesting features, but the headline-grabbing nugget is the one about Israelis and Obama. “Despite criticisms earlier this year about President Obama’s position on the Arab-Israeli peace process, his standing among Jewish Israelis is improving, according to a public opinion poll released Wednesday night”, Jessica Rettig reported. The Jerusalem Post reported that, “while in 2010, fewer than half of Israeli Jews polled expressed favorable views of Obama, 54 percent of Israelis expressed a favorable view of the American president. Thirty-nine percent expressed negative views, the same percentage that say that they are discouraged by the administration’s policy in the Middle East”.

So, does this mean the long era of Israeli suspicion towards Obama is over? Yes and no.

Yes: One can clearly see that Jewish Israelis think more positively about Obama today than they did a year ago. The “negative” then was 51% and now is 39%; the positive then was 41% and now is 54%. A small number of Israelis – just 6% (up from 5%) – mention Obama when asked about their “most admired” world leader. Bill Clinton is at 10%, George W. Bush at 7%. Nonetheless, there’s an undeniable improvement in Obama’s standing among Jewish Israelis. David Harris of the National Jewish Democratic Council had made these numbers his new campaigning tool. In an email sent yesterday, Harris says that “today, it’s clear that Israelis hold favorable views of the President. But I don’t expect to hear a peep from the GOP about these new favorability figures now that Israelis have gotten to know the President better over time.”

While one must agree with Harris that Republicans would hardly make an effort to share this wonderful news with their supporters, the first comment by Harris might be an overstatement. Yes, more Israelis hold favorable view of President Obama. But not “Israelis”. When “Israelis” (in this case Jewish Israelis) hold favorable view of an American President it looks more like this (62% for Bush, including Arab Israelis – meaning more than 70% among Jewish Israelis), or like this (sorry, Hebrew, but it gives 70% favorability for Bush). 

In 2004, when Israelis were asked if they would like President Bush to win a second term (against John Kerry), a vast majority supported Bush – and Arab Israelis were the exception (most of them supported Kerry). In 2008 more Israelis (46%) wanted John McCain to win the election than the number wanting Obama to become President (34%  again).

Bottom line: That Obama is doing better among Israelis is great, and no big surprise following his UN speech, his firm stand on Iran, his abandonment of the settlement-freeze fight, his continued support on matters of national defense and other issues. However, his favorability among Israelis is still relatively low, and I suspect it is also very fragile. More importantly, the more telling question, “Would you want Obama to win a second term, or prefer a Republican President?” was not asked in this poll. When a majority of Israelis say they want an Obama more than a Romeny or a Gingrich, I’ll be convinced that opinion has shifted.