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March 26, 2009

US Jews Open to Palestinian Unity Govt

by Jim Lobe

Contrary to the views of the likely incoming right-wing government of Israel, most U.S. Jews favor peace negotiations with a Palestinian unity government that would include Hamas, according to a new poll released here Tuesday by the year-old, pro-peace Jewish lobby group, J Street.

The poll of 800 self-identified Jews conducted during the first week of March also found strong support for Washington's taking a much more aggressive role in peace efforts between Israelis and Palestinians. More than half of the respondents (52 percent) said Washington should "tell Israel to end settlement expansion" on the West Bank.

On the other hand, the survey found that three out of four Jewish Americans supported Israel's three-week military offensive in Gaza earlier this year, although a strong majority (59 percent) said the campaign had not improved Israel's security. The offensive, in which some 1,400 Palestinians were estimated to have been killed – compared to only 13 Israelis – has drawn strong criticism from human rights groups around the world, including the U.S.

The poll also found that Israelis were split on Iran and its nuclear program. Asked whether the U.S. should attack Iran if it were on the verge of developing nuclear weapons, 41 percent of respondents said it should, while 40 percent said it should not. Sixteen percent chose "neither."

Respondents were similarly divided when asked to choose between direct negotiations that offer incentives to Tehran to abandon its alleged nuclear weapons program and sanctions that force Iran to choose between its nuclear program and international isolation.

The survey comes as the new administration of President Barack Obama concludes a number of reviews concerning its policies in the Middle East, and on the eve of the anticipated installation of a new Israeli government headed by former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his right-wing Likud Party.

While the more-centrist Labor Party headed by former Prime Minister Ehud Barak voted narrowly Tuesday to join the coalition, the new government is likely to be dominated by the Israeli Right, which has supported settlement expansion, opposed the creation of a Palestinian state and the return of the occupied Golan Heights to Syria, and, like much of the rest of Israel's political spectrum, warned repeatedly of the "existential" threat to Israel itself that would be posed by a nuclear-armed Iran.

Obama, who has also deemed a nuclear-armed Iran as "unacceptable," has nonetheless repeatedly stressed – most recently in his video-taped Iranian New Year (Norouz) greeting last week – his hopes of diplomatically engaging Tehran on a host of issues, including its nuclear program.

He has also repeatedly emphasized his commitment to reviving peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians designed to achieve a "two-state solution" to the conflict. On only his second full day in office, Obama announced that former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell would oversee that effort – as well as possible negotiations between Israel and Syria – as his special envoy.

Mitchell, who played a key role in the Northern Ireland peace process in the late 1990s, has been criticized by some right-wing leaders in the Jewish community here for being too "even-handed" in his approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with which he dealt briefly as head of a commission appointed by former President Bill Clinton which called for Israel to freeze its settlement activity in 2001.

Those moves have suggested to many observers that a clash between Netanyahu and Obama on a number of key issues is virtually inevitable, and that the reaction of the U.S. Jewish community, whose political influence in both the Republican and Democratic parties far exceeds the roughly four percent of the electorate it makes up, could be critical in the way such a confrontation plays out.

Obama, who took nearly 80 percent of the Jewish vote in the November elections, would enter such a situation with a strong hand, according to the poll. Around three out of four U.S. Jews view his job performance, moral character, and ability to restore U.S. standing in the world approvingly, and, more specifically, seven in 10 support his approach to the Middle East, although only 42 percent said they had a favorable impression of Mitchell, who is of Lebanese ancestry, as special envoy.

On several issues, a majority of respondents opposed the Likud's campaign positions. Sixty percent of all respondents, and, perhaps more remarkably from a domestic perspective, 72 percent of those respondents who said they contribute money to political campaigns, said they opposed the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

In this, as in other issues, the poll found a significant difference between the Orthodox Jews, 80 percent of whom supported settlements, and more religiously liberal or secular Jews, who opposed them by significant margins.

In addition for calling for more aggressive U.S. leadership in peace efforts, a strong majority of respondents voiced support for engaging a Palestinian unity government that included Hamas in peace efforts. Washington has insisted as a pre-condition for any contact with the Islamist group that it renounce violence and recognize Israel, but, even when informed that Hamas has failed to meet these conditions, 69 percent of respondents said such engagement should take place.

That position coincides with that of several former senior U.S. policy-makers who have informally advised Obama – including former national security advisers Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski; former U.N. Ambassador Thomas Pickering, and former House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Lee Hamilton – who have privately called on the new administration to drop Bush's preconditions in order to engage Hamas.

Three out of four respondents said they supported a two-state solution based largely on the territorial compromises raised during aborted peace talks at Camp David and Taba, Egypt, in 2000. Netanyahu has strongly opposed those compromises, most notably permitting a Palestinian state to establish its capital in East Jerusalem.

As to how aggressively Washington should pursue such a solution, 86 percent said they favored an active U.S. role if that means publicly stating disagreements with the parties, and 77 percent said they should name the party responsible for blocking an accord. Nearly half of respondents said they would favor reducing U.S. military aid to Israel if it were responsible.

(Inter Press Service)

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    Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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