Doing The Numbers: Obama's Window

The many questions in Yediot Aharonot's weekend poll gives us a feel for Israeli society, much like many touches give the blind man a feel for the elephant. My friend Jo-Ann Mort suggests that the key finding is a solid majority for evacuation of settlements; and its is true, and reassuring, that by 52% to 43%, respondents now actually favor a "freeze." But I think we might keep feeling around.

The responses do reveal Obama's window of opportunity. But the window is small and it will take consistent outside power, hard and soft, to pry it open. The questions are themselves a kind of code. The responses reveal a deeply divided country that would prefer not to confront its own divisions.

FIRST, THE BAD news. About 54% approve "natural growth" in the more than 150 settlements that already exist. So saying "freeze" new settlements may simply mean no new settlements are necessary to consolidate Israel's presence in the Palestinian territories, whatever the fate of this presence proves to be. Besides, the majority for a freeze, like the minority against "natural growth," includes Arab respondents. If we are speaking of Israeli Jews alone, the numbers are more discouraging.

To the question, "Should the illegal outposts be evacuated?," 70% say yes and 25%, no. Think of the latter number as the core of the hard right, people who will turn on Netanyahu as readily as they turned on Ariel Sharon if the settlement project is put in jeopardy. When you eliminate Arab respondents, you can assume about a third of Jews. The larger right, about 41%, says Israel should "not agree to the establishment of a Palestinian state as part of a peace deal." Think of them as a layer of reactionaries added to the ideologues.

We are not looking here at data about, say, whether Virginia will fall into the blue column. This is not winner takes all. It is loser spoils everything. Israel's right is more like Serbia's in the 1980s than Virginia's in 2008. They live in a world apart. Some 12% say they will "resist" the evacuation of settlers. This is about a third of the third, 600,000 people, as many people as those who lived in the Palestinian Jewish Yishuv in 1948. They are armed. My working hypothesis, based on results of the recent election, is that these people disproportionately live in and around Jerusalem, the territories and in the development towns of the south.

WHICH BRINGS ME to the peace camp. To the question, "Should the birthrate in the settlements be taken under consideration and therefore allow construction for the sake of natural growth?," 54% say yes, 42% say no. The latter number is, in this case, the peace camp's core constituency, people who have come to regard the settlers and the orthodox as a threat to Israel's future and place in the world; they are unwilling to cut settlers any more slack. Their number is almost exactly equal to the 41% who say they are not "disappointed by Obama's policy towards Israel," and the 44% of those who say Netanyahu will "eventually agree to the establishment of a Palestinian state."

But we are speaking here mainly of people in the upper crust of the Tel-Aviv-to-Haifa corridor on the coastal plain, people with their face to America, Europe, and global opportunities. We are also speaking here of Arab citizens who, in a climate of tension, withdraw from ordinary politics entirely. Levels of cooperation between Israeli Jews and Arabs in political life remain slight, even in the peace camp, alas. If the right, opposing the government, provokes open violence, Israeli Arabs will themselves become violent and push the center to the right.

I have said often that the core constituency of the peace camp is very wary of directly confronting the core of the settlers and their sympathizers. The evidence for this fear is in the response to the vague question: "Is Obama's policy good for Israel?" This really translates as, Wouldn't you rather have a president like Bush who just loved us to crazy and helped us preserve the status quo? Some 53% say Obama is bad for Israel, and only 26% say good. There is an inchoate tension underlying this response, not a dispassionate assessment of whether the policy itself is right. There is no other way to explain why only 26% say Obama's policy is good, but some 55% say Israel should "agree to the establishment of a Palestinian state as part of a peace deal." (Again, take out Arabs and we are looking at a small minority of Jews eager for a confrontation.)

THE GOOD NEWS is really in the question, "Should Netanyahu acquiesce in Obama's demands or reject these even at the cost of sanctions?" Once the question is, in effect, What do you fear more, a confrontation with the settlers, or a world without America?, 56% say go with America. Note well: the rightist 40% say, fuck it, if America wants a showdown we'll give them one. The swing here, 15-20%, are mainly Russians, more educated Mizrahi Jews, and young people who otherwise imagine themselves strategic hardliners, but cannot imagine Israel as a Western pariah state.

And here, precisely, is Obama's opening. If he can maneuver Netanyahu into becoming, like Tzipi Livni, an advocate for preserving relations with America over any other concern--if Obama can, as he started to even before the Cairo speech, change Israel's national conversation from Iranian power to American power--he can at least hope to get a cooperative government that will enjoy majority support in the face of provocation from the violent minority.

If, for example, Obama and the Quartet can get Netanyahu to sign off on "two-states," which carries greater symbolic importance after Cairo, it seems almost inevitable that Netanhayu will give Livni what she wants to join a National Coalition. Among Kadima voters, 52% to 41%, would want Livni to join.

A unity government organized to respond to Obama will marginalize the hard right in the government, something that cannot be done in the streets--at least, not immediately. It will take a generation of shows of force by international troops and investors, of secular peace and economic growth, to thin out the Israeli right. Ditto Hamas. If Obama started a peace process in Cairo, this is it.