What do nine Israeli scholars and ex-officials know about American politics? Why should we even consider their opinions worthy of attention? These questions are asked whenever a new survey from The Israel Factor project is released — and we’ve been doing these surveys since 2006, so it’s been quite a long while. The answer is, we believe that it’s useful to understand how an informed group of Israelis view what’s going on in the Diaspora. Our most recent survey, published this week, revealed that our panel isn’t very enthusiastic about the prospect of a second term for the Obama presidency. From an Israeli point of view — our panel is all-Israeli — a Mitt Romney presidency would be better (for Israel!) than a second term for President Barack Obama. The panel also concluded that a Newt Gingrich presidency would be better for Israel than a second term for Obama.
The Israel Factor panelists are: Alon Pinkas, Fox News contributor on Middle East and international affairs; Fred Lazin, a professor at Ben-Gurion University; Dan Halperin, a former minister for economic affairs at the Israeli embassy in Washington and a member of the board of trustees of the Hebrew University, Jerusalem; Yossi Shain, a specialist in international relations, comparative politics and Diaspora politics, with a dual appointment at Georgetown University and Tel Aviv University; Dore Gold, president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, who served as the 11th permanent representative of Israel to the United Nations (1997-1999); Zohar Segev, a senior lecturer in the Department of Jewish History at the University of Haifa; Zvi Rafiah, who served in the Israeli diplomatic service for 21 years and was minister-counselor at the Israeli embassy in Washington, serving as the liaison for the embassy with both houses of the U.S. Congress; Eytan Gilboa, director of the Center for International Communication and senior researcher at the BESA Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University; and Abraham Ben-Zvi, lecturer and author and contributor to such publications as Middle East Focus, Strategic Assessment and The Jerusalem Journal of International Relations. (For more complete bios of each of the panelists, visit jewishjournal.com/rosnersdomain.)
In this most recent survey, both leading GOP candidates were given higher marks than Obama in response to two separate questions: One asked the panelists to rate all candidates on a scale of 1 to 10 on whether they are “good for Israel.” Obama’s overall average was 6.78, Romney’s was 8, and Gingrich’s was 7.56. All the other Republican candidates trailed Obama on this scale — which is to say, the panel didn’t think they were as “good for Israel” as the current president. One should add, though, that this panel tends to pay more attention to leading candidates and to rank them higher than marginal or secondary candidates.
A second question on the Obama-Romney-Gingrich trio forced the panelists — four of them are former Israeli officials and five are university professors, all experts on United States-Israel relations — to look at two possible head-to-head races: Obama vs. Romney and Obama vs. Gingrich. In both races, the panel chose the Republican candidate over Obama, but, interestingly, while the general ranking was more favorable toward Romney (8) than Gingrich (7.56), in these head-to-head matches against Obama, Gingrich ranks higher than Romney.
What Israeli experts think about U.S. candidates isn’t necessarily going to impact how Americans vote — though it might be of interest. There are Americans who put Israel high on their voting agenda, and those voters might look to Israeli experts for help in assessing the complicated components of an administration’s policies toward Israel. Other voters might value this survey for its perspective on the way an essential ally is assessing America’s conduct: Are you happy with the way the United States is handling its current Middle East policies? — you might be, or you might not. And it can be useful to discover that a group of Israeli experts ranked “overall American policy toward the Middle East” as a 4.78 out of possible 10 — not a disaster, but also pretty far from being a positive assessment of the way the United States has been navigating the Arab Spring and Winter.
The panel is much happier with the way the Obama administration has been handling its relations with Israel. Yes, the governments have had their share of differences and more than a healthy share of mutual bickering, but all in all, the panel gives the Obama team a 7 out of 10 on “overall policy vis-à-vis Israel.” This number, too, should be taken with a grain of salt. Our panel is not homogenous. We have experts from right and left, some who believe that a little pressure on Israel might be good for all parties involved, others who want the United States to support Israeli policies as much as conceivably possible and consider “pressure” to be a sign of bias or even hostility. Thus, the 7 — as with all marks in The Israel Factor survey — is the average of their markings and not unanimously agreed upon by all members of the team. If one is looking for relative conformity, one should look for marks that are very high or very low: Ron Paul — not good for Israel (2.89 out of 10); Occupy Wall Street — also not good (3.12 out of 10); AIPAC — good (8.78). The panel has a centrist streak and is usually more supportive of mainstream positions and policies and candidates.