U.S. Jews and Israel versus Barack Obama
In a recent poll, 95% of American Jews felt the demand that Palestinians recognize Israel as the Jewish state is justified.
Results of a recent American Jewish Committee survey regarding American Jews' opinions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the U.S. government leave little room for doubt: 95% of respondents felt the demand that Palestinians recognize Israel as the Jewish state in a final status agreement is justified. Over three-quarters of those surveyed believe the Arabs' real objective is not the restoration of occupied territories, but rather the destruction of Israel.
The American Jewish community - known for its liberal leanings, and a majority of whom voted for Barack Obama in the presidential election - is delivering a message to the administration: The real test that Arab orientation toward Israel has changed is its willingness to recognize explicitly the existence of a Jewish state in the region.
The survey also indicates a serious drop in the community's support for the U.S. president, with regard to the government's handling of the peace process. The Obama administration has drawn conclusions quickly. In an unusual move, State Department spokesman Philip Crowley recently emphasized American acknowledgment of "Israel's special character ... as a Jewish state," as well as American support of Israel's demand that it be recognized as "the state of the Jewish people, just as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recognizes the Palestinians' right to their own state."
The majority of American Jews have not left the Democratic Party, which is their historical home - but to a greater extent than is supposed in Israel, they are definitely sensitive to Israel's status and future as a Jewish state. While they are conscious of the criticism leveled against the Netanyahu government and Israel's right-wing, they are not prepared to accede blindly to Obama's diplomatic pragmatism.
The start of Obama's term was characterized by tension and cooling in U.S.-Israel relations. The tension, however, has been somewhat allayed as the president's term has progressed; and earlier predictions that the Obama administration would heavily pressure Israel after November's Congressional elections also now appear to be off the mark.
It seems increasingly clear that Netanyahu's demand that Israel be recognized as the Jewish state was a strategic one, which has exerted crucial influence on the balance of mutual, Israel-Arab demands, as well as on the forces in Washington that would pressure Israel. Grasping this fact, Yasser Abed Rabbo, the secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organization, made a dramatic announcement last week offering "recognition of Israel under any formula." Many of his colleagues oppose this statement, though, and it is difficult to believe the Palestinians and the Arab League will be able to do anything more than produce a vague formulation of intentions.
The reversal produced by Netanyahu's move has clear implications for the agenda of future talks; and the U.S. government clearly understands that exclusive focus on the question of settlements and the construction freeze will not succeed. As far as American Jews are concerned, the demand that Israel be recognized as a Jewish state is not an attempt to hamstring the peace talks; instead, it is a legitimate core demand, germane to the resolution of the conflict.
Of course, the sovereign right to reach decisions regarding peace and security belongs to Israel, as it will pay the price of choices made by its leaders. But it is nonetheless important to note that Jews in the United States feel the discussion on the issue of the Jewish state is an existential matter that pertains to them directly - just as issues of Israeli state and religion, and Law of Return, are crucial to them. At play here is not a change in position, but rather the yearnings of hearts in the United States, which are sometimes overlooked by those Jews who reside in Israel.
Dr. Avi Beker is a lecturer in diplomacy at Tel Aviv University. He has served as Secretary-General of the World Jewish Congress.