WASHINGTON — Even as President Bush’s popularity dropped to record lows, his administration was embraced warmly this week by the thousands of delegates at the most influential annual gathering of American Jewish activists.
In recent weeks Bush has seen his approval ratings drop to around 35%, leading some analysts to the conclusion that his poll numbers were putting him perilously close to a “failed presidency” — one unable to effectuate its policies because of a lack of popular support. But this week, at the annual policy conference of the main pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, several of the most hard-line administration officials, including Vice President Dick Cheney and Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, drew a resounding response.
The hard-line mood of the audience also extended to Israeli politics.
Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who, like the two other candidates for prime minister in Israel’s coming election, spoke on a video link from Jerusalem, was cheered enthusiastically when he called for building “an iron wall” around Hamas. Labor leader Amir Peretz and Kadima’s candidate, Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, were not as warmly received, as they talked about a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Olmert spoke about unilaterally redrawing Israel’s border in the West Bank through further pullouts, and received polite applause. Former premier Netanyahu, however, was cheered enthusiastically when he spoke about the need to push the West Bank security fence eastward, deeper into the Palestinian territory, to create a broader buffer against Palestinian terrorism.
The enthusiastic support for Netanyahu and Bush administration hawks underscores what appears to be a widening gap between pro-Israel activists in Washington on the one hand and the Israeli and American publics on the other. Polls show Netanyahu trailing Olmert and Peretz in Israel at the same time that support for Bush and the Iraq War are plummeting in America. Some political observers have suggested that Bush’s declining political fortunes would make it harder for him to follow through on the hawkish rhetoric cheered by pro-Israel activists, but participants at the Aipac conference who were interviewed by the Forward voiced no such concerns.
Aipac also appears to be out of step with the American Jewish community on Iraq. Like many other American Jewish organizations, it supported the Iraq war. But 70% of American Jews oppose the Iraq war, according to a poll commission by the American Jewish Committee at the end of 2005.
Jewish organizations, most of which have a liberal political orientation, recently have taken a unified hard line against Iran and Hamas.
“Aipac members tend to be more hard line and defensive when it comes to Israel’s security than the mainstream of the American Jewish community,” said analyst Doug Bloomfield, a former Aipac legislative director. “They see themselves as Israel’s first line of defense against unwanted pressure.”
Cheney — a bugaboo of the left for his role in the Iraq War — spoke for more than 35 minutes at the conference Tuesday. He stressed the need to stand firm against Islamic extremists, including the newly formed Hamas government in the Palestinian territories, and Iran, whose president has vowed to “wipe Israel off the map.”
“The United States will not be a party to the establishment of a Palestinian state that sponsors terror and violence,” the vice president said, adding, “We will not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon.”
Cheney’s personal approval ratings have dropped to below 20%. But the vice president was received enthusiastically at the Aipac conference, drawing 48 rounds of applause from the 4,500 assembled delegates — including eight standing ovations. When he took the podium, the crowd stood and cheered for almost a minute. It displayed similar warmth toward Bolton, a leading administration hawk on Iraq and Iran, who spoke Sunday morning. Even Senator Susan Collins — a Maine Republican known as an archmoderate — garnered loud applause, when she called the Iranian government “a racist, death-worshipping cult.”
The delegates’ reactions to the Republicans showed that despite its sagging support nationwide, the administration still can garner vocal support among pro-Israel activists for its support for Israel and its hawkish rhetoric on Islamic terrorism — even as large sections of the public apparently feel disenchanted by its handling of some related issues, such as the Dubai ports deal and the war in Iraq.
Owing to his unpopular handling of the ports deal and to a deterioration of Iraqi security that started with the attack on the country’s main Shi’ite shrine — events that strike at the core of Bush’s competence on national security — Bush has seen his personal popularity slip to about 35% in recent polls. The drop comes after he only recently had recovered some of his standing after taking a beating last fall for his administration’s seemingly slow response to Hurricane Katrina.
Now, however, Bush is “back deep in the danger zone,” Stratfor, a leading security consulting agency, argued in an analysis published March 1. “He is losing part of his core constituency.… A failed presidency was on the table and then off the table. It is suddenly back on, and in a more serious form than before.”
Even the office of the presidency has suffered a diminution of support under Bush. A recent Harris Interactive survey found that only 25% of respondents say they have “a great deal of confidence” in the White House, down from 31% last year.
None of this disenchantment appeared to resonate with the Aipac delegates, who in interviews frequently praised Bush’s resolve and character, as well as his positions.
“I still think George Bush gets it,” said one delegate, Dr. Daniel Storch, a Phoenix cardiologist and registered Democrat who voted for Bush in 2004. “I’ve been impressed all along that he sees the world in the way that the Israelis do in terms of terrorism and security.”
Storch said he opposes the ports deal, which Bush supports strongly. But Storch contrasted the administration’s general approach to the Middle East favorably with that of Democrats — who suffer among some Aipac activists from a perceived softness on national security matters.
“The Iranians take the threat of military action from George Bush more seriously than they would have from John Kerry,” he said.
Democrats have scored points among pro-Israel activists recently by highlighting the issue of the Arab boycott of Israel in the ports controversy. At the same time, however, Democrats, pressing the issue of lobbying reform in the Republican-dominated Congress, have proposed stringent rules on interest-group-funded overseas trips for lawmakers, like the ones frequently sponsored by Aipac as part of its Israel advocacy.
Some conference attendees said that the hard-line foreign policy outlined by administration officials would help Bush rally his base, which polls suggest is starting to abandon him for the first time.
Pastor John Hagee, a popular national evangelical leader who attended the conference, said that Bush would succeed in his Middle East policies because “he has set a moral agenda in support of Israel.”
“It’s not a matter of political clout,” Hagee said. “It’s a matter of right and wrong. It is right to support Israel.”
Others said that the Bush administration’s tough talk on Iran would catalyze support internationally.
“There is such unanimity on Iran, both domestically and internationally, that the president will enjoy strong support for his policy,” said William Feinstone, a delegate from Skokie, Ill. “This support will supersede whatever weakness — real or perceived — this administration may be suffering from.”
Delegates voiced only muted criticism of Bush’s Middle East policies — and what complaints did emerge generally seemed to come from the president’s right flank. They privately debated whether the administration should cease discussing the establishment of a Palestinian state while Hamas is in power and whether humanitarian aid to the Palestinians should be cut off in order to shorten the life of the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority.
Frequent Bush critic Morton Klein — national president of the Zionist Organization of America, which strongly opposed the Gaza pullout — said that the president likely would seek an even harder line, given his political troubles.
“President Bush and his advisers believe that if he would relent in this crucial fight against Islamic terrorism, his poll numbers would fall even further,” Klein said. “Not only would it be wrong for America, it would hurt him politically. The American people want this evil to be crushed.”
With Reporting by Ori Nir.