Obama’s Still Popular With Ex-Generals

Good Fences

By J.J. Goldberg

Published October 20, 2010, issue of October 29, 2010.
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Somewhere around midnight Eastern time on November 2 we should have a pretty good idea whether President Obama is about to turn into a swan or a pumpkin. If he holds onto one or both houses of Congress, he’s the ugly duckling that became a swan. If the Republicans sweep both houses and Obama ends up barricaded inside the White House like Arafat in the Muqata’a, he’s Cinderella’s coach back in the pumpkin patch.

If he becomes a swan, they’ll be uncorking champagne at the AFL-CIO, Greenpeace and the United Nations. If he turns into a pumpkin, you’ll hear hymns of praise rising from thousands of humble country churches, grange halls, chambers of commerce and modest, God-fearing derivatives trading floors nationwide.

You’ll also hear lusty choruses of l’chaim greeting the GOP victory in synagogues, Jewish community centers and Chinese restaurants from coast to coast. That, at least, is what emerges from the American Jewish Committee’s latest survey of Jewish opinion (and who am I to question a professional opinion survey?), headlined “AJC Survey Shows Jewish Disapproval of President Obama Rising.”

The survey has caused quite a stir since its release October 11. It found Jewish approval for Obama at a low 51%, down from 57% last March (and catastrophically down from the estimated 78% who voted for him two years ago). Approval of his handling of U.S.-Israel relations is even lower, with 49% approving and 45% disapproving, a virtual tie. In March, his Israel policies earned 55% approval versus 37% disapproval.

Obama’s handling of the Iran nuclear crisis is even more unpopular: 46% disapprove, while only 43% approve. Nearly three quarters believe there’s little or no chance that diplomacy or sanctions will stop Iran from getting nukes, and 59% would support a U.S. military strike to prevent it. That’s a huge change from two years ago, in September 2008, the final months of the Bush administration, when Jews opposed U.S. military action by 47% to 42%.

As for Afghanistan, fuhgeddaboudit. The survey shows that 64% of Jews believe America is losing the war.

Jewish conservatives are treating the survey as though it announced the coming of the Messiah. They’ve been predicting since 1972 that this was the year Jews would turn Republican, and they’ve always been let down. Now hope is within grasp.

AJC Executive Director David Harris is unequivocal about the survey’s significance: It’s about foreign policy and the Middle East, he wrote in announcing the results. “Most disturbing in our survey’s findings is the nervousness of American Jews about two of our nation’s top foreign policy issues and how our leadership is responding,” Harris said in a much-quoted statement.

In fact, the survey makes crystal clear that foreign policy is not the main thing on Jews’ minds. Asked “how important” a list of issues will be to their congressional vote, the economy, health care and unemployment all scored between 80% and 87%, while Israel and “foreign policy” each got 61%. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan did slightly better, with 66%.

Intriguingly, AJC asked a similar question in 2008 about the presidential vote, but it was worded slightly differently: Respondents were asked to pick which single issue mattered most to them. The economy got 54%. Israel got 3%. So letting the respondents rate each issue separately — rather than just picking one — lets Israel look stronger, but it’s still way behind.

Curiouser and curiouser, as Alice said when entering Wonderland. If American Jews are even somewhat alarmed about Israel policy, which the survey makes plain, what are the objections? Well, for one thing, they want a more aggressive stance toward Iran. They’re leaning toward military action.

For another thing, they’re unhappy with the way Obama is treating Israel. We know what that means: He’s been pressuring Israel to make concessions in order to enter peace talks that won’t go anywhere anyhow. The survey found Jews more skeptical than they’ve been in years about Palestinian statehood: It’s a virtual dead heat, 48% for and 45% against. Fully 76% believe that the “goal of the Arabs is not the return of occupied territories but rather the destruction of Israel.” That makes Obama’s urgent pressure on Israel to negotiate seem a bit misplaced.

Do Israelis agree? Popular opinion seems to lean that way. The intifada, the rocket fire from evacuated Gaza and years of Arab rhetoric have taken their toll.

Why, then, is Benjamin Netanyahu so vocal about the possibility of reaching a peace agreement in the near future? Is it only because that’s what Obama wants to hear? Looking at the AJC survey, that seems to be the popular consensus: Obama is pushing Israel into a trap.

In fact, Netanyahu is just doing what his defense and intelligence brass believe necessary. And they emphatically don’t agree that talks and concessions are pointless. Just days after the AJC survey was released, the Iraqi-born ex-general and former defense minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, now minister of trade and industry, was in Washington for trade discussions. While there he publicly urged Obama to pressure both sides — Israel and the Palestinians — to sit down and reach an agreement.

The very next day, Iranian-born ex-general, ex-chief of staff and former defense minister Shaul Mofaz publicly urged Netanyahu to “rise above political and coalitional considerations, set aside one’s ego and do whatever is necessary to find a suitable political solution for this bloody conflict.” It’s doable, he said. And it’s urgent.

Careful readers might reply that Ben-Eliezer and Mofaz are from Labor and Kadima, so they’re biased. What about ex-generals from Likud? Well, that’s the thing — there aren’t too many. The Labor and Kadima caucuses in the Knesset between them have four former and current defense ministers, two former chiefs of staff and a deputy chief, a former Shin Bet chief and two former deputy chiefs. The Likud has two ex-generals, one of them a former chief of staff. Other than two former army spokesmen (one Likud and one Kadima) and a former chief medical officer (the far-right National Union), that’s it.

Most ex-generals entering politics don’t join the right, because the right’s defense prescriptions — popular as they are on the Israeli and American Jewish streets — don’t make sense. Obama knows what Israel’s generals know. He’s doing what they need him to do. And if he turns into a pumpkin, count the Israeli defense establishment among the mourners.

Contact J.J. Goldberg at goldberg@forward.com and follow his blog at www.forward.com

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