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Israelis uneasy as US nears vote

John McCain leads Barack Obama by 12 percent in one Israeli poll, a reflection of security concerns.

By Correspondent / October 27, 2008

Sen. Barack Obama visited the Western Wall in Jerusalem in July 2008. Polls suggest that Mr. Obama is popular with younger citizens in Israel.

Menahem Kahana/AFP


Jerusalem and Tel Aviv

Though newspapers and televisions here percolate with news of Sen. Barack Obama’s surge toward the helm of this country’s most important ally, Nir Lev refuses to be swept away.

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“I prefer McCain,” says Mr. Lev, a landscaper, while watching soccer at a Jerusalem bar. “But you want to know what it comes down to? We don’t know who [Obama] is.”

While it seems like the world is eager for a victory by Senator Obama, the Democratic contender, many Israelis remain uneasy.

This is a country where a security-first mantra often trumps all other arguments. It’s a nation anxious about an Iranian attack or Hezbollah strike. It’s wary about international involvement in peacemaking with Palestinians and edgy about suicide attacks from Gazan militants.

These are the types of threats that color Israelis’ worldviews and influence the type of American president they want: someone who will take a hard line when confronting any existential threat to the Jewish state.

“They look at [Sen. John] McCain and they see a tough president willing to help them do what is necessary. The look at Obama and they see a liberal with big ideas. But when the time comes when Israel has to do something tough and not so beautiful, they don’t know whether he’ll say ‘do what you have to do,’ ” says Shmuel Rosner, an Israeli expert on US politics.

That perception has placed Senator McCain 12 points ahead of Obama in a recent poll conducted by the TNS Teleseker polling agency. The survey, commissioned by the Rabin Center for Israel Studies, found that 52.5 percent of those polled thought McCain would do a better job of protecting Israel.

This country’s preference runs counter to the likely choice among American Jews, who are expected to back Obama by at least 3 to 1, according to a recent Gallup poll. Also, the Democratic candidate’s popularity is stronger among younger, more dovish Israelis.

“People stop me on the street and ask me for reassurance that Obama will not be [elected]. It’s the old the ‘security first’ argument,” says Avraham Ben Tzvi, the US affairs commentator for Israel Radio and a professor of international relations at Haifa University.

What’s more, while the McCain campaign tries to distance itself from the Bush administration, Israel hopes he would carry on many of President Bush’s same policies, especially regarding the Middle East.

Obama’s condemnation of Hamas rocket attacks from Gaza on a visit to the Israeli border town of Sderot in July has helped allay concern that he would mark a radical shift in US allegiances.