Jewish Journal


December 1, 2012

Gaza war and Obama: What do Israelis really think of them?



President Barack Obama with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the White House, September 2010. (Photo: Reuters)

A new Brookings-MDU survey of Israel opinion was released Friday, with some numbers of interest and some – as usual (I haven't always praised the Shibley Telhami polls) questionable.

Interest: Who won the Gaza war?

According to the new poll, 44% of Israeli Jews believe that Israel “won the combat in the Gaza strip” earlier in November. This means one of two things:

Either the wording of the poll (maybe focusing on “the combat” is the key here) made Israelis’ answers seem more forgiving than they were a week ago, when a much larger share of the population believed that Israel was barely victorious in the last battle. In an earlier poll by Camil Fuchs, 34% of Israelis said Hamas won, 28% said that Israel won and 26% thought it was a tie. 

Or – maybe the week that separated the two polls (Fuchs’ was published Nov. 22, Telhami’s Nov. 30) made Israelis truly more forgiving. In the days after the Gaza operation ended, Prime Minister Netanyahu and his emissaries spent a lot of time trying to explain to Israelis that the outcome was in Israel’s favor and that the constant whining over it was damaging to Israel.

So maybe Israelis were convinced that Netanyahu is right, that the Gaza operation was not a great victory (45% of Israelis and 44% of Jewish Israelis still give it the very mediocre “neither” on the who won the combat question; 38% of Israelis and 42% of Jewish Israelis don’t think that the battle made Israel’s situation better “than before the escalation”) but also was not a failure. Only 16% of Jewish Israelis believe that the operation made Israel’s situation “worse” than before and only 10% of them believe that Hamas “won the combat”. That is hardly a high mark for the government, but is an improvement compared to some of the earlier polls released soon after the operation ended.

One important note: It is reasonable to assume that the longer there’s quiet on the Gaza front, the more Israelis take a better view of operation Pillar of Defense.

Questionable: What Israelis think of Obama

As was clear from earlier polls, the Telhami methodology is good for those wanting to present Obama as president who is well-liked by Israelis. And the new poll is no different on this front. As the analysis phrases it: “Views of Obama are now quite positive, with 60 percent expressing favorable views - up 6 points from the previous year (and 8 points among Jewish Israelis). Asked which world leader they most admire, among Israeli Jews Obama is now the most frequently cited”.

That’s all very nice but hardly tells the true story about Israelis and Obama. If you really want that story – go see our J-Meter tracker of Israeli Opinions on Obama. In the latest poll, we present in this aggregator of all Israeli polls on the "Is Obama pro-Israel" question (Smith, October 2012): only 18% of respondents said that the president is pro-Israel. Telhami boosts Obama by asking a question to which Israelis are more hesitant to respond negatively: “How would you describe your views of President Barack Obama of the United States?”

So – how do they describe their views? It all depends on one's expectations. It is true that 60% express positive feelings towards Obama, as the analysis says, but the 60% are truly just 16% with “very positive” views and 44% with “somewhat positive” views of Obama. True, somewhat positive is better than negative - but is it really as good as Telhami makes it appear? The percentage of Israelis with “somewhat negative” views is actually higher than the percentage of those with “very positive” views (20% and 16% respectively), but the more important thing is that the rank of “somewhat positive” is quite disappointing for an American president. It is disappointing for a president so vehemently defensive of Israel at the UN. It is disappointing for a president who contributed significantly to the development of the Iron Dome system. It is disappointing for a president who’s been trying to demonstrate his unshakable commitment to Israel’s security for quite a while now.

So clearly, Israeli views of Obama are improving – I don’t think anyone should doubt that. They are improving because of the U.S. vote against the Palestinian non-member state initiative, and because of the support during the Gaza operation, and because of the subsiding of public bickering over Iran at least for now. However, with all due respect to the current “positive view” of Israelis, the real test was less than a month ago when Americans went to the polls. “Whom do you want to be elected as the American president?” Israelis were asked (a Panels Politics poll) in first days of November. Fifty percent of them said they wanted Mitt Romney to win, just 26% chose Obama. So they might “admire” Obama more than other world leaders, but not enough to want him to keep his job.

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