Posted on October 13, 1997 in Washington Watch

Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu is an increasingly isolated figure. Fury in the Arab world over his policies is being echoed within Israel as well. And a recent poll demonstrates that the majority of American Jews support policies that run counter to those of the Netanyahu government.

Harsh rhetoric is being used to denounce the Prime Minister by a number of prominent Israeli analysts and opinion makers, even some from within his own Likud party. A recent Israeli poll shows two-thirds of Israelis having an unfavorable view of their leader, and in recent articles in the Hebrew press, Netanyahu has been accused of being a “liar” a man who “lives in a fantasy world,” and his government has been called “imbecilic” and “a danger to regional peace.”

When attacked at home, Israeli leaders sometimes turn to the American Jewish community for support. Netanyahu can still count on the support of the leadership of many American Jewish organizations. But even before the recent Mossad terrorist attack against a Hamas leader inside Jordan, the policies of the Prime Minister had fallen into disfavor with the majority of American Jews.

In fact, the American Jewish community is more polarized then ever before regarding the Middle East peace process. This division is not so much within the ranks of the community as it is between the leadership of the organizations and Jewish public opinion.

A recent poll (completed September 21) establishes that the overwhelming majority of American Jews support a balanced U.S. Middle East peace policy. The poll, conducted by President Clinton’s own pollsters (Penn and Shoen), interviewed 1198 Jews and had a margin of error of less than 3%.

The only good news the poll has for Netanyahu is that he is viewed more favorably by American Jews than Palestinian President Yasir Arafat. At the same time, as expected, the majority of U.S. Jews demonstrate strong support for Israel. The poll shows that 82% of all U.S. Jews want the “US special relationship with Israel” to be strengthened and 94% believe that “Israel will always need a strong army.” So much for Netanyahu’s good news.

The bulk of the Penn and Shoen poll makes it clear that the Prime Minister and his government can take little comfort in the policy attitudes of American Jews as revealed in the Penn and Shoen poll.

For example:
· 71% believe that Netanyahu “has not done enough to promote the cause of peace.” Only 18% think that he has;
· 94% say that a “stable peace with the Palestinians is important for Israeli security,” thus implicitly rejecting Netanyahu’s “security first” argument;
· 84% say that the US should pressure both Netanyahu and Arafat when necessary, and 89% urge the U.S. to be even-handed in its policy;
· 82% believe that the U.S should “reassure Palestinians of U.S. support for independent statehood”;
· 79% support Secretary Albright’s call for Israel to take a “time-out” from settlements; and
· 68% say that U.S. aid to the Palestinians should be increased or kept the same.

The emerging pro-peace consensus among the majority of American Jews can not be good news for those who call themselves leaders of their community. Increasingly they have been taking positions in public pronouncements and in their lobbying efforts that display uncritical support for the policies of the Netanyahu government.

During a conference call Secretary Madeline Albright had with Jewish leaders prior to her recent Middle East trip, (note: this call was followed by a conference call with Arab American leaders) many of the Jewish leaders criticized her call for a balanced approach and her opposition to Israeli “unilateral acts.” The few individuals on the call who supported the Secretary’s position were publicly ridiculed for being “out of line.” The poll shows that the opposite is true.

Several Jewish groups have recently undertaken advertising campaigns and lobbying efforts adopting the anti-peace attitudes of the Netanyahu government, for example, condemning Palestinian President Arafat, calling for a freeze in Palestinian aid and promoting security issues before other considerations in the peace process. And no major U.S. Jewish organization has supported the call for a settlement freeze or recognized the Palestinian right to statehood. The Penn and Shoen poll shows that these positions do not reflect public opinion.

If the leadership of the mainstream organizations is out of touch with their membership, further out of line is an extremist wing of the Jewish community, which has caused serious problems in recent years. The pro-Likud Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) working with the Republican right-wing leadership in Congress, has for example, succeeded in forcing a closure of Washington’s PLO office (an action which AIPAC, the Israeli lobby also supported) and freezing aid to the Palestinian Authority. The ZOA has also been leading the effort to oppose confirmation of Martin Indyk as Assistant Secretary of State. They accuse Indyk of being critical of Israel, meddling in internal Israeli affairs, and taking positions that favor Palestinians.

Two groups that will find the poll in line with their own thinking, however, are the American Friends of Peace Now, a grouping of liberal U.S. Jews who oppose settlements and strongly support the peace process and the Israel Policy Forum (IPF), a pro-peace grouping of mainstream Jewish leaders who support the peace program of Israel’s Labor Party.

It was the IPF that commissioned the Penn and Shoen poll in order to demonstrate to the Clinton Administration and the rightist leadership of the Jewish community that the majority of American Jews do not support the hawkish policies of the Netanyahu government.

Of course, the picture of where things go from here will not be simple. A mere poll does not by itself change politics. The organized financial power of the pro-Israel PACs and AIPAC, although out of touch with the majority of Jewish opinion, are still a power with which politicians will have to contend.

And far-right groups and individuals like the ZOA, the ultra-orthodox, and zealots like Dr. Irving Moscowitz can still create serious problems by supporting right-wing allies in the U.S. and promoting provocative projects in occupied Palestinian lands.

Moscowitz is a case in point. He is an independently wealthy doctor who made millions first in the hospital business and more recently by running a legal bingo gambling hall in a poor Hispanic area in California. By himself, Moscowitz has contributed almost$20 million to extremist fundamentalist groups in Israel with the express purpose of buying Arab properties in Jerusalem. It was Moscowitz who was behind the take over of the St John’s Hospice and the Shepherds Hotel. He financed the construction of the tunnel in the Old City and he was the person whose plans at Ras al Amoud touched off recent unrest.

It was Moscowitz and a small number of other multi-millionaire American Jews who helped to finance Netanyahu’s election as Prime Minister and Ehud Olmert’s elections as mayor of Jerusalem. They have also funded far-right groups like the ZOA in the U.S. and extremist groups in Israel.

It is important to note that many American Jews are now criticizing Moscowotz’s provocative acts and there is growing debate within the Jewish community over the political positions of both the Israeli government and those who claim to be their leaders.

The danger to Middle East peace done thus far by Netanyahu and his supporters in Israel and the U.S. is considerable. The fact that he is unpopular in Israel, and his policies are disfavored by the majority of American Jews is a hopeful sign. But despite calls in Israel for his ouster, he is still in power and the damage that he may yet do is worrisome.

The lessons of the Penn and Shoen poll should be clear to U.S. politicians. The views of the majority of Israelis and American Jews are not reflected by the Netanyahu government or by Israel’s famed lobby in the U.S. Political leaders in the U.S. ought to have the courage, therefore, to apply needed pressure to change Israeli policy.

But there is a lesson for Arabs as well. Since a majority of Israelis and American Jews do not support this Israeli government or its policies, Arab policy ought to be firm and directed at further strengthening this opposition and emboldening it.

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