Israelis uneasy as US nears vote

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

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

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.

“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.

Mr. Rosner says that initial concern among Israeli officials that Obama would take a critical line toward Israel, reminiscent of former Democratic President Jimmy Carter’s comments this past year, has eased somewhat in recent months.

But Obama’s thin foreign-policy record still counts as a looming question mark.

“McCain is seen as a safe bet. The gut feeling on whether the US will support Israel’s need to use force is a key element,” says Rosner, a former US correspondent for the Haaretz newspaper.

He says there’s little difference between the candidates on a possible peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians. But there’s been a hint of the candidates’ differing worldviews: Obama has called that conflict a “sore” that affects the Middle East – a view echoing former British Prime Minister Tony Blair – while McCain has said that a solution wouldn’t necessarily temper extremism.

Israeli public opinion, along with local experts, has been used on both sides of the campaign to make inroads with American Jews.

In August, a pro-Obama Jewish group produced an Internet video purporting to show a group of ex-generals and security experts endorsing Obama. Several participants later said the producers of the film misled them into believing it was a nonpartisan production.Kory Bardash, chair of the Israel chapter of the Republicans Abroad, speculated that 70 percent of the ex-pat vote from the Jewish state backed Mr. Bush in 2004.

“All the Jewish papers want to know what Israelis think,” says Mitchell Barak, a local pollster. “I hold that what Israelis think has absolutely no bearing on what American Jews think. Israel isn’t necessarily the sole issue.”

Public opinion polls have been sparse and volatile. A mid-June poll for the right-wing Mekor Rishon newspaper put McCain’s lead between 36 to 27 percent, but an Israel Radio poll taken at the same time showed an Obama advantage.

Indeed, Israel is no red state. During the Democratic and Republican primaries, Hillary Rodham Clinton polled as the most popular candidate because of Israelis’ memories of Bill Clinton’s close ties with former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin before his assassination.

Israelis with more dovish political leanings tend to speak more positively about an Obama presidency. Polls suggest he’s more popular with young Israelis.

“He symbolizes the winds of change,” says Gal Kachman, a psychology student at Tel Aviv University, sipping coffee at a cafe while a friend perused an article about Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.

Mr. Kachman predicts that Israel would eventually fall into line with Obama’s backing for talks with Iran. He expresses hope that the Illinois senator would infuse Israel’s jaded public with a some optimism about politics.

“Because Obama is a rookie, it’s a gamble but the payoff is big. It’s change pushed to the extreme: black, young, inexperienced. Let’s go all the way.”

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