Obama Rides Wave of Change in Middle East

Obama Rides Wave of Change in Middle East

The meeting this week between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took place in a U.S. political environment that is clearly different than those of prior meetings between the two nations' heads of state. It gives Obama an opportunity to act in ways that were not politically possible for his two Democratic predecessors, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.

Obama's Democratic Party base has changed demographically and in how it views the U.S. relationship with Israel and the Mideast peace process. Democratic voters now have very contrasting views on these matters with those of Republicans, and this gives him a potential mandate to change course in U.S. policy.








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This was crystal clear in a Zogby Interactive survey of 4,340 U.S. adults, conducted for the Doha Debates from April 1 to April 4, 2009. Here are a few of the questions in the survey that found significant differences between self-identified voters for Obama and Republican Sen. John McCain.

--Agreement that: U.S. interests and Israel's interests are identical. McCain voters, 78%; Obama voters, 28%.

--Do you believe U.S. support for Israel strengthens or weakens U.S. security? McCain voters: 72% strengthens, 13% weakens. Obama voters: 21% strengthens, 50% weakens.

--Agreement that: If Israel continues to build settlements in the West Bank, the U.S. should get tough on Israel and attempt to stop the expansion of settlements. McCain voters, 26%; Obama voters, 71%.

--Which of the following best describes how the Obama administration should pursue peace in the Middle East? Lean toward Israel: McCain voters, 60%; Obama voters, 9%. Lean toward Palestine: McCain voters, 12%; Obama voters, 6%. Steer a middle course: McCain voters, 22%; Obama voters, 72%.

Why do these partisan differences exist on an issue that for many years produced a much more uniform set of opinions? There are three key factors here.

First, support for Israel is extremely high among evangelicals Christians, who are the bedrock of the Republican base. That, coupled with broad acceptance of neo-conservative foreign policy among Republicans, accounts for our survey results. Support for Israel among Republicans now ranks as one of the party's bellwether issues, almost as much so as abortion and gun rights.

Second, our survey found that young people, blacks and Latinos want the U.S. to play a more balanced role in the Middle East. All of these groups voted overwhelmingly for Obama. For 18- to 29-year-old "First Globals," this break in attitudes from the rest of the population is one aspect of their more open and inclusive view of the world. Through travel, student exchange and the Internet, their direct contact with people of the Middle East is much greater than that of their elders.

Third, more American Jews who want peace in the Middle East believe that taking a hard line will not bring Israel long-term security with its neighbors. This is one reason all the GOP's ammunition against Obama during the campaign as not being supportive enough of Israel missed the mark. Exit polling showed Jews favoring Obama over McCain, 78% to 21%. Obama worked very hard to assure them of his support for Israel, and he succeeded with Jewish voters.

However, concern about Israel is only one of the many issues that Americans Jews care about. Most back Obama's liberal policies on the economy, social issues such as reproductive and gay rights and other questions of equality and fairness.

How will this emerging political opinion affect the Obama administration's policies regarding Israel? Obama will emphasize dialogue and conciliation regarding this matter, just as he does with most every issue he touches. The wind of public sentiment is at his back for just such an approach. The question will be how forcefully he tries to influence the Israelis to accept a two-state solution and a freeze on West Bank settlements.

Even if he chooses to pursue that course, Obama will still face opposition from Republicans and U.S. supporters of Netanyahu's hard-line policies toward the Palestinians. However, these are not the voters who elected him. Those that did want a new U.S. policy, and they are pulling for Obama to carry it out.

John Zogby is president and CEO of Zogby International and the author of The Way We'll Be: The Zogby Report on the Transformation of the American Dream. He writes a weekly column for Forbes.

Note: James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based organization which serves as the political and policy research arm of the Arab American community, served as a consultant and analyst on the Doha Debates survey. James Zogby is the writer's brother.

Jean-Noel Kapferer and Vincent Bastien's ''The Luxury Strategy.''

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