President Obama sees popularity boost in Israel

In a new poll in Israel, Mr. Obama earns a favorable rating of 54 percent from Israeli Jews – up an impressive 13 percent compared to last year. Still, he's not as popular as former US presidents Bill Clinton or George W. Bush.

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    President Barack Obama meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, Friday, May 20, 2011.
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If President Obama is looking for some relief from mediocre favorability numbers, he could take solace in a place where he might not have expected to find it – Israel.

In a new poll of Jewish and Arab Israelis, Mr. Obama earns a favorable rating of 54 percent from Israeli Jews – up an impressive 13 percent compared to last year.

By contrast, Obama’s job approval rating at home is stuck in the low 40’s, according to Real Clear Politics, while just over half of Americans disapprove of the job the president is doing.

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The jump in Obama’s favorability among Jewish Israelis might seem counterintuitive.

Obama has never wowed Israelis like he did Europeans – in fact while the new US president was riding high in much of the world after his election, only 7 percent of Israelis had a favorable view of him,

More recently, Obama hasn’t exactly been bosom buddies with the Israeli leader, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and he specifically called on Israel this year to accept a Palestinian state based largely on pre-1967 borders, an idea that about a third of Israelis reject, according to the poll.

Moreover, Obama has not visited Israel in his three years as president – although he did take in neighboring Egypt in 2009 to deliver his famous Cairo speech.

The Monitor's Weekly News Quiz for Nov. 27-Dec. 2, 2011

But there are also some key reasons Israeli Jews warmed up to Obama this year, some Israel analysts say.

“It’s pretty simple, really,” says Sam Lewis, a former US ambassador to Israel. “In the first place Obama is spending a lot of time strengthening security arrangements with Israel, and the Israelis know that,” he says. “And then he defended them in the UN and he vetoed our own position on the Palestinians” when the president rejected before the UN General Assembly in September the Palestinians’ plan for declaring statehood.

Still, Ambassador Lewis adds, “It’s still surprising he’s come back [in favorability among Israeli Jews] as fast and as high as he has.” 

The poll, an annual survey conducted by Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland and the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy, also found Israelis to be wary of where they see the Arab Spring taking the region they live in.

A plurality of 44 percent of Israeli Jews said the Arab Spring would be positive for Israel if it leads to more democracy in Arab countries. But a majority, 51 percent, says that in reality the Arab Spring has been mostly negative for Israel, with only 15 percent saying the impact has been mostly positive. 

The news out of Israel is not all rosy for Obama. The poll also finds that Israeli Jews cite Angela Merkel, Bill Clinton, and even George W. Bush as world leaders they admire before they pick Obama (To be fair, no world leader commands the admiration of even a large minority of Israeli Jews, with Chancellor Merkel mentioned by 12 percent, President Clinton by 10 percent, and President Bush by 7 percent, just ahead of Obama’s 6 percent).

Israelis are still smarting over Obama’s decision to give a major speech in Cairo, and failing to stop in to see them while he was in the neighborhood.

“Obama made a big mistake early on by not going to Israel and explaining his policies to them,” Lewis says. “He was seen as choosing the Arab side.”

Obama may be recovering from that perception now, but Lewis says it’s unlikely the president will ever match Bill Clinton’s stature in Israel.

“Clinton made a great effort to connect to the Israeli public and the press, and he’s remained popular ever since,” he says. “Obama has never shown that ability to ‘feel their pain,’ and that has registered. He’s just too cerebral for them.”

The Monitor's Weekly News Quiz for Nov. 27-Dec. 2, 2011

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