Volume 3, Number 163
'There's a Jewish story everywhere'

Tuesday-Wednesday, July 28-29, 009


As Obama's domestic problems grow, pressure
on Israel on the settlements issue eases

By Ira Sharkansky

JERUSALEM—The Obama administration is pressing Israel, but the president is being pressed by other issues. Health legislation is getting more attention at home, and it is not easy

When the proposal for national health became prominent in the 1940s, the major opponents were physicians, most of them independent entrepreneurs organized in the American Medical Association. Now a large percentage of physicians are salaried employees of health maintenance organizations (HMOs), and there are a number of programs in place to provide partial coverage to segments of the population. The patchwork has become part of the problem. The players include for-profit insurance companies and HMOs, the buffering offered by state programs, requirements that federally aided hospitals provide care to walk-ins, Medicare, Medicaid, plus organized small businesses, opponents to covering aliens or abortions, and other groups intent on protecting their pieces of the patchwork, or staying out of a patch in order to keep their costs low.

Commentators see public opinion in the United States becoming less supportive of Israel or more severely opposed to Israel. They assign responsibility to Lebanon 2006 and Gaza 2009. Yet public opinion is fickle, especially about something far from home. It may spike in response to pictures or reports, but does not say if individuals will press officials who make policy.

Moreover, commentators do not always have the facts right. An update from a month ago based on Gallup polls going back to 1967 shows steady American support for Israel in the range of 55-65 percent as opposed to less than 20 percent for Palestinians and other Arabs.

If we are concerned with the wiggle room of the Netanyahu government, the most important public opinion is that of Israelis, and especially Jews. Most Arab Israelis have voted themselves irrelevant by supporting parties that emphasize nationalism and criticism of the government instead of adhering to the political norm of going along in order to get along.

Over the years Israeli polls have shown considerable support for an accommodation with the Palestinians, but also suspicion and resistance in the face of specifics. Most recently (i.e., after President Obama's Cairo speech), polls show a combination of

support for an agreement, but pessimism that one is possible. Sixty-three percent of Israelis questioned in a poll that included Arabs as well as Jews supported a two-state solution, but more than 60 percent of both Israelis and Palestinians believe that it is impossible to reach such an agreement within the next five years.

The Obama administration did not do itself a service by targeting new neighborhoods of Jerusalem along with the West Bank in its demand for a complete freeze of settlement activity. Netanyahu jumped on the issue with fervor and success. Would a western government keep Jews from living anywhere in its capital city? Israel would not keep Jews from living anywhere in Jerusalem. A popular Hebrew internet site, most likely heavily Jewish in its readership, invited responses to the "American Veto of Jewish building in East Jerusalem."

Of more than 4,500 responses, 74 percent said that "Jerusalem is part of the State of Israel, and therefore there is no problem;" 15 percent responded that "building in East Jerusalem is problematic, but not the affair of the Americans;" 11 percent said that "building represents a problem for negotiations with the Palestinians, and the American intervention is justified." Adding Jerusalem to the American menu may hut the prospect for a settlement freeze anywhere in the Land of Israel.

George Mitchell is in the neighborhood working on peace between Israel and the Palestinians, Syria, and other Arab countries. National Security Advisor James Jones and Dennis Ross are talking with the Israelis about Iran and other things. It is not clear what priorities Israel and the Palestinians have on the president's wish list in comparison to health care and Iran, and the fighting in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq.

As far as us commoners know, Syria wants the prestige of diplomatic relations with the United States. Its officials may hum pleasantly in response to questions about negotiations with Israel. The problem is that they are is willing to begin talks only when Israel agrees to full withdrawal from the Golan Heights and then some. Saudi Arabia is a key piece in the Obama effort to get gestures from Arab governments toward Israel in exchange for Israeli compliance with the settlement freeze, and it has not been forthcoming.

Israelis should always be concerned about America. The pressure that currently seems feasible is not an occasion for worry.

Sharkansky is professor emeritus of political science at Hebrew University. Email: msira@mscc.huji.ac.il

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