Christi Parsons, Paul Richter
The Los Angeles Times
May 3, 2010 - 12:00am,0,...

President Obama's altercations with the Israeli government have brought protests from U.S. groups that staunchly support Israel.

But the administration retains substantial overall support among American Jewish voters, and that appears to be giving him political running room to ply his approach to the issue.

Obama has criticized Israel for continuing to build Jewish housing in disputed territory, which the president says threatens efforts to restart peace talks, contributes to instability in the region and jeopardizes U.S. interests.

Pro-Israel groups in the U.S. have been alarmed by Obama's efforts to wring concessions from the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

But the larger American Jewish community is more open to Obama's arguments, analysts said.

"The Jews who join pro-Israel organizations are quite upset by Obama's actions, and the damage there is going to be hard to repair," said Steven Rosen, a former foreign policy director for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the influential pro-Israel lobby. "But there's a vast group of Jews who don't think that much about Israel, and are just involved in liberal causes."

Polls reflect some erosion in Obama's support from American Jews. Yet, most continue to show that a majority back his overall foreign policy and his approach to the Middle East.

"Overall, I don't think this is going to have great consequences for his domestic support," said Rosen, who has been a critic of Obama's approach.

Pro-Israeli groups in the U.S. have watched uneasily for nearly a year as Obama sought to halt Jewish construction in the West Bank and in Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. They were jolted to hear Obama say on April 13 that problems like the Arab-Israeli conflict cost Americans "blood and treasure," a remark seen as a signal that the president will continue to press Israel for concessions.

Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel took out a newspaper advertisement to register his unhappiness. The upshot of Obama's comment was that "it's Israel to blame for the lack of progress on peace, and it's endangering American lives," said Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. "That's disturbing."

The administration "is willing to throw Israel under the bus in order to please Muslim nations," former New York Mayor Ed Koch, who campaigned for Obama's election, griped to FOX News.

Nonetheless, a recent poll of U.S. Jews by the American Jewish Committee in March found that 55% approved of the Obama administration's handling of U.S.-Israel relations, while 37% disapproved. The annual survey was conducted in March, at the height of the latest U.S.-Israeli tiff, and released in April.

While the survey found that Jewish voters' overall support for Obama had fallen to 57% from a high last year of 79%, they still support him more strongly than Americans as a whole.

Many prominent Jewish Democratic leaders have been supportive of the administration, or at least have refrained from criticism, including Rep. Howard L. Berman of Valley Village, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee; Rep. Gary L. Ackerman of New York, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Mideast subcommittee; and Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California.

The divide between American pro-Israeli activists and other U.S. Jews is not particularly new. Many pro-Israel groups, as well as the Israeli government, supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But American Jews as a whole opposed the war by a 3-1 margin, Gallup found in 2007 — making them more strongly anti-war than any other U.S. religious group.

American Jews represent only about 2% of U.S. voters, but their activism and political donations give them a disproportionate importance to Democrats.

After the 2004 election, Democratic operatives estimated that roughly half the party's large-sum donors — those giving more than $25,000 — were Jewish.

Some Republican fund-raisers say they have seen signs that Obama's clash with Israel has brought a surge in donations to Republicans. Morris J. Amitay, a former AIPAC official and treasurer of a pro-Israel political action committee, said contributions are up.

Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, said the fallout "could eventually, theoretically," have an impact.

"But we're far from it having an impact now," Forman said. "And given where the administration is going, I'm confident that the party will do very well with Jewish donors."

After an internal review that found tensions had grown too high, the administration embarked on a campaign to improve ties with Israel and its American supporters, say people close to the discussions.

In a series of public appearances and private meetings, senior administration officials have assured Jewish groups that U.S. commitments to Israel's safety remain ironclad.

Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, and Dennis Ross, White House Mideast advisor, were among those pushing for a new approach, say people familiar with the discussions.

Even so, Obama has not backed off from his view that Mideast peace is an American security issue, and that the U.S. government needs to play an active role in seeking a peace deal.

"We've definitely seen a change in the public statements. The question is now, is this change cosmetics or substance?" asked Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League. "We'll find out in the next crisis."


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017