Poll: Israelis Appreciate America, but Obama – Not So Much

According to a new Begin-Sadat Center survey, support for a military attack on Iran dissipates if Washington does not go along with it.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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President Barack Obama speaking at the National Institutes of Health, Tuesday, Dec. 2, 2014.
President Barack Obama speaking at the National Institutes of Health, Tuesday, Dec. 2, 2014.Credit: AP
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

An overwhelming majority of the Israeli public values the country’s relations with the United States, regards Washington as a loyal ally and believes that America will come to Israel’s aid against existential threats. But only a minority says that President Obama has a positive attitude towards Israel and most Israelis believe that his policies have weakened America’s position in the Middle East.

Nonetheless, American support for a theoretical Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear installations is apparently critical for the Israeli public: without it, the majority that would support such an attack in case of diplomatic failure turns into a minority.

These findings are part of a comprehensive poll conducted by the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies (BESA) at Bar Ilan University in advance of a two-day seminar, America’s Standing in the World: Image and Reality, that will convene in Ramat Gan on Monday.

According to the poll, conducted among a representative sample of Israeli adults, 96% of the Israeli public believe relations with the U.S. are important or very important; 74% say Washington will come to Israel’s defense at an existential “moment of truth”; and 73% believe America is a loyal ally to Israel, with 21% saying that Washington’s allegiance is only “so-so” and 5% that it is no ally at all.

52% of those polled think that the U.S. supports Israel because of the strategic partnership between the two countries; 32% ascribe it to “the political prowess of American Jews,” but only 5% to the “shared values” that politicians on both sides usually extol. Another 1% thinks that the U.S. supports Israel because of the religious beliefs of Evangelical Christians.

44% of Israelis believe that the interests of the two countries are “identical”, 34% say that they are “more or less” the same and 20% believe that the interests are “very different.”

According to the poll, Israelis believe that 23% of American Jews feel “very close” to Israel and another 54% feel “close.” However, Israelis are less optimistic about the future: asked to predict how American Jews will feel about Israel in the future, only 18% said they would feel “very close” and 44% said “close,” a drop of 16% compared to the present.

Relations with the U.S. come in a close second behind Israel’s military power as a critical factor to Israeli security. 95% value Israel’s military, 91% close ties to Washington, 82% cite the peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan, and 80% put their trust in a security presence in the Jordan Valley. Only 62% view a peace agreement with the Palestinians as vital but a lower figure still – 48% - attaches significance to Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

Most Israelis – 64% – believe that the American position in the Middle East has gotten weaker since Obama took office, compared to only 11% who say it has gotten stronger. Only 38% believe that the current U.S. position is strong. The U.S. gets mediocre marks, at best, on its handling of Middle East challenges: 51% say Obama’s policy towards the Palestinians is bad, compared to only 17% who commend it and 30% who are neutral; the same is true, more or less, for Iran (49% good, 16% bad, 33% neutral) and ISIS (46% bad, 25% good and 26% neutral). 37% believe that Obama himself has a positive attitude towards Israel, 37% believe it’s negative and 24% view it as neutral.

Prime Minister Netanyahu, on the other hand, gets a passing grade from Israelis for his handling of relations with the U.S: 41% say he’s handled them well, 34% believe he’s handled them badly and 20% are neutral.

On Iran, 41% believe Israel should attack the country’s nuclear facilities if diplomacy fails while 37% say it shouldn’t. But if Washington objects, the numbers are reversed: only 35% support an attack under those circumstances and 42% oppose it. And it is not Iran, but terror that is considered the number one threat to Israeli security: 88% cite it as “a significant threat to Israel’s existential interests.” It is closely followed by radical Islam (79%), the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (79%) and a nuclear Iran (75%).

Finally, the demographics of the poll also reveal the uphill battle awaiting the Israeli left in the upcoming elections. Asked to describe their own political views, 22% said right-wing, 29% said center-right, 18% center, 13% center-left and only 11% as left.

Israeli Arabs comprised 13% of the polled sample of 529 adults. The maximum sampling error in the poll is plus-minus 4.5%.

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