How Israelis See Obama

It’s not what you think -- and it may not even matter, compared to how they see Israel's own situation.

Perhaps a U.S. president's approval rating among Israeli citizens is somewhat trivial. After all, Barack Obama's re-election will be decided in Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, not in Haifa, Tel Aviv, and Netanya. Nevertheless, the notion persists that a U.S. president's approval rating in Israel can significantly affect his ability to conclude a comprehensive peace agreement. That is why Obama's alleged rock-bottom 4 percent approval rating among Israelis -- a result within the margin of error -- has become cause for concern.

In fact, however, the number is a red herring. Our own survey results suggest that the stalemate in the peace agreement has little to do with Israeli perceptions of Obama -- which are far more favorable than one might think -- but is actually more deeply linked to Israeli complacency and comfort with the status quo.

The 4 percent figure, now a ubiquitous marker of Obama's failure in the Middle East, originally came from a Jerusalem Post survey this summer. But it wasn't an approval rating. The survey question asked whether Israelis believed Obama was "more pro-Israel," rather than "more pro-Palestinian" or neutral. The Western media have adopted this statistic (as in this recent New York Times editorial) often to argue that the president doesn't have the Israeli support necessary to bolster his efforts in the peace process.

But the number is misleading. To clarify Israeli public opinion, we commissioned a poll of 1,000 Israelis, undertaken by Gerstein Agne Strategic Communications and recently released by the New America Foundation, shedding new light on Obama's actual standing in Israel. And the bottom line is that, particularly given how little Obama has invested in speaking directly to the Israeli public, he is viewed in a relatively positive light. The favorability rating our results show, 41 percent (with 37 percent unfavorable) is 10 times that claimed by the Jerusalem Post. While this is not astronomically high for a U.S. president, it is notably stronger than the favorability ratings for Israel's foreign and defense ministers, and a mere seven points below that of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

This is not to say that Israelis don't have concerns about Obama: For instance, 50 percent believe he is weak on terrorism, and only 42 percent agree that he supports Israel.

In a panel this week at the New America Foundation, Gil Tamary of Israel's Channel 10 News explained that much of Obama's relative unpopularity in Israel is a direct consequence of the Israeli press's daily attacks on him. But based on our survey results, should Obama decide to make a direct pitch to the Israeli public, his starting position would be one of relative strength. Obama has not yet reached out to Israelis in the way he has to the Muslim world, with his historic trips to Egypt and Turkey. A similarly momentous state visit to Israel could build a tremendous amount of goodwill with an already receptive Israeli public.

However, when it comes to building peace in the long term, the poll's other findings on Israeli public opinion may prove even more consequential for an administration that finds itself at an impasse. According to the poll, Israelis would support any peace agreement reached under Netanyahu by a margin of 59 to 34 percent. They even favor a U.S.-defined peace deal, like the one attempted by President Bill Clinton at Taba in 2001, by 53 to 45 percent. The only problem is that Israelis do not seem to think that peace with the Palestinians and neighboring states is an urgent priority or that its absence carries any sufficiently immediate and negative consequences. 

So in effect, Obama's popularity or lack thereof has little to do with the prospects for peace. The real problem is, simply, Israelis are happy with the situation as it stands and have little motivation to change it. Only by a small majority of 4 percentage points do Israelis believe that they cannot shoulder the economic and security burdens of the status quo, and even fewer think that U.S. support for Israel will decline if there is no peace (by 49 to 47 percent, within the margin of error).

Given the daunting challenge of moving a number of the 500,000 Israeli settlers living beyond the green line, the country's original 1949 borders, (or leaving some under a future Palestinian sovereignty), one begins to understand why the current cost-benefit calculation weighs in favor of maintaining the status quo.

If there's any encouraging news for the Israeli government in our results, it's the pronounced Israeli capacity for pragmatism. This is evidenced in Israeli popular support for Netanyahu's negotiations with Hamas over a prisoner exchange, border-crossing issues, and informal understandings on a cease-fire. Although only 36 percent of Israelis consider their own prime minister "honest and trustworthy," according to our results (this compares with 55 percent who attribute these qualities to Obama), a commanding 69 percent approve of Netanyahu's handling of security. Indeed, the poll suggests that Netanyahu has far more wiggle room on the Palestinian issue than is generally assumed.

In the end, the poll shows that Israelis care most about regular bread-and-butter issues. When asked what would be their top reasons to support a peace, a "more normal life for our children" and "economic growth" come in first and second (polling 50 and 37 percent, respectively). Even recognition by 22 Arab states -- so ardently pursued by the administration and promoted by Congress -- motivates only 15 percent of Israelis.

In other words, Israelis see few reasons not to continue the occupation and are perhaps being offered the wrong kinds of incentives for choosing a different path. The behavior of Israel's leadership is consistent with a short-term political calculation that Israelis aren't willing to disrupt the present scenario. Continuing and even entrenching the occupation, for example, avoids hard and coalition-threatening political choices at home, incurs the most minimal international and domestic costs, and is not seen to defer new and meaningful benefits that Israelis would enjoy conditional on a peace deal. For any new peace effort to have a chance at breaking the logjam, then, its starting point will need to be the creation of a new architecture of incentives and disincentives -- and Obama's popularity, or lack thereof, will be left up to the people of Virginia.



No More Representatives, Please

The last thing we need is a new big shot envoy in Kabul.

Over and over again during the past eight years, the United States and its allies have been on the lookout for that one "big idea" -- the silver bullet program or institution -- that can make the war in Afghanistan work. Over and over, they have invested all their energy and hopes in the idea's pursuit. And time and again, they have been disappointed as Afghan realities intervene to frustrate success.

Now, there's another big idea in the offing: to install an international high representative in Kabul in hopes of coordinating a stronger international position vis-à-vis Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government. Another, unstated reason for the proposal is perhaps to circumvent Kai Eide, the United Nations' outgoing point man in Afghanistan, whom some in the U.S. administration are said to view as ineffective.

In October, I resigned from my position as a political affairs officer at the U.N. mission in Afghanistan over policy differences with its leadership mostly concerning our handling of the election debacle. But I continue to believe that the U.N. mission is the best and only way to coordinate international support to Afghanistan. This latest magic trick won't work any better than the last one. In fact, it may even be worse.

The idea of a high representative has been floated for a number of years. The logic is that the "light footprint" strategy pursued by the international community for the first few years after the fall of the Taliban, including the accelerated sovereignty of Afghanistan thereafter, was a mistake. While not assuming any executive powers, the high representative would signal a more critical and conditional relationship between the international community and the Afghan government.

The first and most obvious question to be asked is what and whom a high representative would represent. There are already several multilateral entities in Afghanistan. In addition to the United Nations and the local offices of its many agencies, Kabul hosts the European Union, European Commission, and NATO civilian representatives. Then there are the embassies, the U.S. Embassy being by far the largest. Coordinating positions among these various stakeholders is difficult enough. Anyone who has tried would no doubt tell you that what's needed are fewer multilaterals, not more.

Also up in the air is what kind of mandate, exactly, such an oversight body would have. The United Nations, for all of its many flaws, is the most publicly legitimate organization on the ground. Were the U.N. to appoint a "high" representative, it's hard to see how the job would differ from the current "special" representative post. Circumventing the U.N. would be equally fraught as countries excluded from the NATO coalition, but still interested in how things turn out in Afghanistan, would no doubt be upset. Adding insult to injury, a non-U.N. high representative would likely strip the U.N. mission of its current political mandate.

Big-picture questions aside, it would be a mistake to underestimate the difficulties international organizations have in operating in Afghanistan, especially at the provincial level. The United Nations has spent years building its presence in 23 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces and has plans to expand to all of them. It has an experienced and capable national and international staff, though a sizable group of us have left in the past few months.

No other multilateral organization can match the United Nations' hard-won network of offices, staff, and personal relationships. Although the U.S. State Department has representatives in each province, for example, they work on one-year rotations, taking their knowledge home with them as soon as it's finally acquired. A new office of the high representative would be self-absorbed for months, trying to establish itself in the capital, hiring staff, and arranging facilities. So, setting up a new entity would take time -- something that U.S. President Barack Obama's recently announced war timeline does not exactly permit.

Nor would it be simple for a high representative to function on the ground -- and here once again, the U.N. experience is telling. For its entire existence, the U.N. mission has been in the unenviable position of being both a political entity in Kabul and the U.N. Security Council-mandated coordinator of international assistance to the country. As you might imagine, these two roles are in great tension. Humanitarian aid of the sort the United Nations coordinates must remain apolitical -- in other words, exactly the opposite of what the U.N. mission is. For example, our offices were in touch with troops on the ground -- a line that humanitarian workers find more morally precarious to cross. So great were the tensions this year that we established a separate Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in 2009. A high representative would surely face similar dilemmas.

Take, for example, the ever-present question we faced about how to coordinate with the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, ISAF. By working closely with ISAF, we reasoned, the U.N. might be able to influence military operations for the good of the Afghan people. But doing so might compromise our own U.N. principles of neutrality as well as endanger U.N. staff by identifying ourselves with the military.

Even more difficult questions arose over our relations with the Afghan government, which our mandate required us to support. The debate came to a head over the August presidential election, in a very public disagreement between Eide and his deputy, Peter Galbraith, my direct boss. Their dispute over how to respond to the clear and widespread signs of electoral fraud raised questions that had lingered over us from the beginning: How independent was the U.N. mission from Karzai's government, and how much room did we have to criticize the Afghan government for its ineffectiveness and corruption? A new high representative would be faced with the very same dilemmas.

One possibility, some might suggest, would be for the high representative to turn to the United Nations for information, analysis, relationships, and most likely, logistical support. A small office of the high representative could be set up in Kabul, buttressed by the U.N. mission and its field offices beyond. It might work. But I struggle to discern the advantage of such an arrangement over the current setup.

A far better approach would be to strengthen the U.N. mission under new leadership once Eide has completed his term in March. The title Eide's replacement holds -- whether it's special representative, special envoy, or high representative -- matters little. More important will be the individual himself. He will need to have the full support of the international community and, in particular, the confidence of the Americans. But he will also need to carry weight with the Afghans, this second task being far more difficult. The optics will prove important -- especially the nationality. Anyone from the immediate region will have to be ruled out, as would anyone from the United States (Europe being only slightly more acceptable).

None of this is to say that the U.N. is achieving all it could be in Afghanistan. Progress is slow and hampered by the mission's current mandate. The U.N. mission needs greater independence from the Afghan government and member states. Ideally, it should have a major role in finding a resolution to Afghanistan's conflict, involving both political reforms and negotiations with parts of the insurgency. Such a process cannot be driven by Afghan politicians who, left to their own devices, would continue to enrich themselves until they escape as the regime collapses. It would be far better for everyone if this were done multilaterally through the United Nations, rather than by Washington and its friends.

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