On Monday, it is expected that President Barack Obama will nominate former Nebraska Republican Senator Chuck Hagel to be the next secretary of defense. While not formally committing to select Hagel in a TV interview Sunday, the president offered high praise for him. Most Americans, of course, cannot identify the current secretary of defense, no less pick Hagel from a lineup, and the furious debate conducted inside the beltway over the anticipated Hagel nomination, has completely escaped them. There are far more Americans who can identify sports, TV or Hollywood personalities than the members of the president’s cabinet, and it is one of the reasons why presidents almost always get their way with these selections.
While some Republican senators have indicated they will have lots of questions for Hagel at hearings if he is the pick, criticism among supposedly pro-Israel Democratic senators (who will hold 55 of the 100 Senate seats starting in January) has so far been muted. After all, Obama was just re-elected, with 51 percent of the vote, winning the Electoral College decisively 332-206, and carrying with him to victory several Democratic Senate nominees and House candidates in close contests.
With the nomination and expected confirmation of Massachusetts Senator John Kerry as secretary of state to succeed Hillary Clinton, the president is setting up a cabinet where if Hagel is nominated and confirmed, the top two foreign policy spots will be filled with former senators who have had more than a few differences with the government of Israel, particularly over its settlement policy.
Obama, of course, has challenged Israel’s settlement policies right from the start of his first term, following an election where his electoral mandate (53% of the vote) was larger than it is this time around. The president will start his second term in office with big domestic fiscal issues to deal with — the looming debt ceiling, and tax and spending policy, regardless of whether there is a short term fix achieved by House and Senate negotiators to avoid going over the so-called "fiscal cliff" in the next few days. The president reportedly has a large second term agenda, from immigration reform to clean energy, as well as the perpetual standby — weakening and embarrassing the Republican Party before the 2014 midterm elections, enabling the Democrats to retake the House of Representatives that year.
Is the president signaling a renewed agenda to lean on Israel with the appointment of Kerry and the presumed appointment of Hagel? Will public challenges to Israel by the president and his cabinet officials begin to weaken popular support for that country among Americans?
While much has changed in the American electorate in the last 20 years, one constant has been the overwhelming level of support by Americans who are polled on the subject of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For critics of U.S. policy toward Israel, the accusation has been made by the likes of professors Steven Walt and John Mearsheimer, and by America’s most prominent but least thoughtful or original foreign policy analyst, journalist Tom Friedman of The New York Times, that U.S. policy and particularly the support of members of Congress for Israel, has been bought and paid for by the Israel lobby. Hagel, of course, got himself in trouble by attacking the “Jewish lobby” rather than the slightly less offensive but now frequently used term, the "Israel lobby."
Poll after poll of Americans provides a different answer — Congress is pro-Israel because Americans are strongly pro-Israel. The latest poll to measure support for Israel versus the Palestinians is from the Pew Research Center. Over the last few years, many of Israel’s supporters in America have expressed concern that the solid popular support for Israel seen over the years was eroding, or would soon erode. Various trends have served to amplify the nervousness. For one thing, Americans were becoming less religious and observant Christians were much more solidly pro-Israel than more secular Christians or non-believers, a rapidly growing group. Jews themselves were declining as a share of all Americans, from near 4% in 1950 to less than 2% today, and may now be declining in actual numbers as well. Many left-wing Jews have developed a near obsession with bashing Israel, providing easy cover for ever nastier attacks on the Jewish state by non-Jews. Cultural institutions, in addition to the media and academia, have provided a warm support system for Israel’s critics. The dominant politically correct mindset in these institutions is to attack both Islamophobia and Israel. Large scale immigration, both legal and illegal, over the past decades has rapidly changed the face of America. Today, America is only 63% non-Hispanic white, and fewer than half of the annual births are to this group. Neither Hispanic nor Asian immigrants to America, with few exceptions, have grown up in societies where support for Israel was common or vocally expressed.
Yet despite these trends, which are real, so far the erosion in support for Israel has not been seen to any great extent in the surveys by Pew or the Gallup organization.
The most recent Gallup survey reveals that 71% of Americans have favorable views of Israel, while only 19% view the Palestinian Authority that way. While Israel is viewed favorably to a greater extent among self-declared Republicans (80%) than Democrats (65%), both numbers are at near record levels (Gallup has been polling this issue for three decades). When asked whom they support in the conflict between the parties, more than three times as many pick Israel (61%) as pick the Palestinians (19%). Over the last 25 years, the support level for each side has grown, but much more rapidly among the group supporting Israel.
The Pew numbers suggest that 50% of Americans support Israel and only 10% support the Palestinians, a 5-to-1 margin, rather than the slightly better than 3-to-1 margin in the latest Gallup survey. However, support for each side is lower than in the latest Gallup survey. Both polls show a margin of 40% or more of Israel supporters to Palestinian supporters. Pew does show much weaker support for Israel among Democrats than Republicans, and weaker support for Israel among younger Americans (ages 18 to 29) than older Americans. But even here, support for Israel is 2½ times the support level for the Palestinians.
Why has support for Israel held up? For sure, pro-Israel supporters work to keep support for Israel high. Palestinians are also burdened by the negative reaction of Americans to groups that sponsor terrorism, especially after Sept. 11. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may be anathema for the columnists and editorial writers in The New York Times but he looks and sounds more familiar and his speeches are more palatable to Americans than anything offered up by Yassar Arafat, Mahmoud Abbas or Hamas’ leaders. Americans also see something familiar in Israel — a Western democracy, and see the alternative in Israel’s neighbors — the crumbling murderous regime in Syria, the growing Islamic despotism in Egypt, and the fanatical mullahs and their nuclear aspirations in Iran. Americans are also increasingly aware of how much Israel has contributed to America's way of life, and see America’s technology giants either setting up shop or expanding operations in Israel. For a nation that is not obsessed with politics or foreign policy, Israel does not seem foreign.
This is not to argue that things cannot change. The constant media drumbeat against Israeli settlements, and public perception of conflicts between Israel and the Obama administration do not help Israel’s image. On the other hand, the surveys make quite clear that Obama was not elected or re-elected because voters wanted him to be tougher on Israel. This was not his mandate. The hubris seen early in Obama’s first term about his ability to get everyone to do his bidding (even winning the votes for the Nobel Peace Prize barely days after he took office), may not be as much on display in the foreign arena in a second term. The disasters in Libya, and Syria, the hard-line turn in Egypt, Iran’s refusal to take Obama’s diplomatic initiatives seriously, and the stalemate in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may all have tempered the president’s arrogance a bit on what he can achieve overseas. With Iran, the picks of Kerry and now, it seems, Hagel, appear to make U.S. support for a military option far less likely. But that does not mean that Israel needs to follow America, rather than lead on that issue. Most Americans will understand.