Is Boston consul-general's assessment correct?

US analysts ponder accuracy of Boston consul-general's warning.

US israel 88 (photo credit: )
US israel 88
(photo credit: )
Boston Consul-General Nadav Tamir set off a media firestorm last week when he sent a diplomatic cable to the Foreign Ministry warning that the government's public opposition to the Obama administration's policies were diminishing US popular support for Israel and causing American Jews to feel torn between the two countries. Amid the brouhaha, which resulted in Tamir being summoned to Jerusalem, swirling questions of the propriety of drafting such a letter and rampant speculation on who was behind its leaking, a more fundamental issue arises: was Tamir's assessment correct? The Israeli government quickly dismissed his contentions, issuing a statement that they were "not worthy of a response." Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon went on to say that Tamir was merely responding to the liberal "bubble" he is surrounded by in Boston. Boston, according to Jewish sociologist Steven M. Cohen of Hebrew Union College, is indeed one of the "most intellectual communities in the United States situated in the most liberal state" in the country. As such, Cohen said, "The consul-general was reflecting his environment." But he said the sentiment Tamir has tapped into "is true throughout the country." Putting aside the Orthodox, who tend to vote Republican and support settlements, Cohen described Jews as "caught in a classic situation of competing tensions. They're being asked to choose between their loyalty to Israel and their support for the policies Obama is advocating." Such tension is compounded by Obama adopting a position - halting settlements - they disagree with Israel on, while the Jewish community as a whole is engaging less and less with Israel, according to Cohen. Marshall Breger, who served as a Jewish liaison under president Ronald Reagan, said that disputes between Israel and the US hurt Israel's position beyond the Jewish community as well. "The underlying basis of the US-Israel relationship is that they have shared values, shared democratic values - Israel hasbara says that all the time," he said, using the Hebrew word for public relations. "The extent to which there is this sense that the Obama administration thinks that the Israeli government is not being responsive to American foreign policy goals in the region, that's harmful to Israel's standing in the United States, and over the long-term, it could be a problem." He said that whether or not Israel put itself in a situation where a divergence of interests and values was evident or others placed it there, he said the dangers of that divergence are beginning to be apparent. "I wouldn't be sanguine," said the Republican, an expert on US-Jewish relations. "I think there is some of that happening - how much, it's hard to make predictions." Ori Nir of Americans for Peace Now, a progressive group that opposes the settlements, only had to look as far as a poll done in mid-June by The Israel Project to come up with the number. In the poll, conducted by a bipartisan team on behalf of the pro-Israel organization, found that Americans who consider themselves supporters of Israel dropped from 57 percent in January to 49% in June. "That showed a serious drop. That came just as the break between Obama and Netanyahu on the settlements was flaring up," said Nir, who agreed with Tamir's assessments. "Most people who saw it attributed it to that - to the notion that there are growing differences between the US and Israel, and Netanyahu isn't being helpful on the peace process." But William Daroff, head of the United Jewish Communities' Washington office, said the timing of the poll affected the results, as it was conducted during the height of US-Israeli sniping following Obama's Cairo speech and before Netanyahu's own address endorsing a two-state solution. "Any poll is a snapshot" in time, he said. "The snapshot showed less support for where Israeli stood, but my sense is that if you took the snapshot again, American popular support would be more like it was in January." Nir stressed that "the disagreement is still very much there" between the parties, raising questions as to how different a new poll would be. But one more recent survey released by Rasmussen on Monday, albeit it with slightly different questions, shows that 70% of Americans consider Israel an ally (with only 8% calling it an enemy), significantly closer than the next-highest Middle Eastern country, Egypt, at 39%. Regardless of the polls, Daroff didn't see much long-term effect from the current discord. "At present, I think this is just another road bump in a very long relationship, and will not really impact on American popular support for Israel," he said. "If we go through eight years of growing and deepening disputes, that's a different story. But I don't think we're anywhere near that yet." Daroff pointed to historical precedents that don't support the thesis that tension between Washington and Jerusalem changes American attitudes, such as with Netanyahu and then US president Bill Clinton in the 1990s. "There's been a pretty constant level of support," concurred Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, of US attitudes towards Israel. "There are always fluctuations in the US-Israeli relationship and support for Israel has remained steady throughout." Hoenlein noted that more than four dozen US congressmen were visiting Israel during the summer recess and that over 70 senators signed a letter Monday backing Israel in the peace process. "The fact that so many senators signed up in support of that letter [shows] the relationship has not been diminished," he said. The letter to Obama, sponsored by Evan Bayh (D-IN) and James Risch (R-ID) and signed onto by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), asks what steps the White House is taking to encourage Arab leaders to make gestures toward Israel and work toward peace. It also praises Israel for taking "concrete measures to reaffirm its commitment to advancing the peace process." "The US and Israel know they have to work together and the American people understand," Hoenlein said of the challenges in the Middle East. "They don't have to agree with everything Israel does. They don't agree with everything their own government does - that doesn't diminish support for America." But another Jewish leader from a mainstream organization, speaking on condition of anonymity said, "It's not good for Israel for there to be loud and constant references to disagreements with the American government. That will inevitably have an impact on how Americans see Israel, and how Israelis see America. So that could certainly be in the prime minister's mind as he deals with these issues."