by Jim Lobe
With results likely to upset hawkish leaders of the organized Jewish community, a new nationwide poll of 1,000 self-identified U.S. Jews has found stronger backing for President Obama’s efforts to forge a nuclear deal with Iran than exists in the public at large.
Nearly six in 10 Jewish respondents (59%) said that they supported any final agreement with Iran that would cap its nuclear program and provide for enhanced inspection of its nuclear facilities in exchange for easing economic sanctions. That was a higher percentage than the 53% of adult respondents from the general public who responded positively when CNN pollsters posed the same question in April.
When respondents were given some additional details about the impending deal, support increased to 77.5% (26.3% “strongly support,” 51.2% “somewhat support”), according to the survey, which was conducted between May 31 and June 3.
The poll comes just a few weeks before the deadline for a comprehensive nuclear deal between the P5+1 (U.S., Britain, France, China, Russia plus Germany) and Tehran, although many experts predict that final details could push negotiations into July.
The survey, commissioned by the “pro-Israel, pro-Israel” group, J Street, also found strong support among U.S. Jews for an active role by Washington in pressing both Israelis and Palestinians to reach a two-state solution to their nearly 70-year-old conflict.
“When it comes to the best way to keep Iran from getting a nuclear bomb, these results make clear that American Jews overwhelmingly support the president’s diplomatic efforts,” said J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami. J Street, which describes itself as a “pro-Israel, pro-peace” organization, commissioned the survey and released the results.
“The numbers just go to show—once again—that pundits and presumed communal representatives are flat-out wrong in assuming American Jews are hawkish on Iran or U.S. policy in the Middle East in general,” Ben-Ami added.
Heavy Lobbying Against Deal
The survey comes amid continued heavy lobbying efforts by both pro- and anti-deal forces on Capitol Hill to influence key lawmakers, particularly on the Democratic side of the aisle.
The Republican leadership, prodded by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his neoconservative and Christian Zionist supporters—led by, among others, the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC), the Emergency Committee for Israel, the Zionist Organization of America, and Christians United for Israel—is virtually certain to try to win passage of a resolution disapproving any final deal achieved between the P5+1 and Iran. On the other hand, the Obama administration, backed by many arms-control and peace groups, is pressing Democrats, many of whom are concerned that Jewish voters and campaign donors may turn against them if they oppose such a resolution or vote to sustain a presidential veto, to stand firm behind the negotiations.
By some estimates, Jewish donors account for as much as 40% of campaign contributions to Democratic candidates running for national office and as much as 50% of the party’s major funders. Although just two percent of the national population, Jews account for nearly four percent of voters and a larger percentage in certain “swing states,” such as Florida, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.
Because of their own right-leaning funding base, as well as their general disposition to support sitting Israeli governments, most “mainstream” Jewish organizations—such as the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, and the premier Israel lobby group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee—have pushed for a more confrontational policy toward Iran and have expressed strong skepticism about, or opposition to, any deal with Iran that does not require its regime to completely dismantle its nuclear program. At the same time, however, these organizations are worried that opposing a deal negotiated by Obama too fiercely risks losing their “bipartisan” image and appeal and alienating the majority of U.S. Jews who support the president and the Democratic Party.
In recent days, pro-deal forces have become increasingly confident that, barring unforeseen circumstances, they will ultimately prevail on Capitol Hill on any disapproval resolution. More than 150 House members—enough to sustain a presidential veto of a disapproval resolution—have signed a letter supporting Obama’s efforts to conclude an agreement. And New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, perhaps the most Iran-hawkish Democrat (after New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez) and most likely the upper chamber’s next Democratic Leader, hinted in a speech last week that he could end up supporting the president. In addition, stories that have appeared recently in the Israeli press suggest serious differences between Netanyahu and senior military and intelligence officials regarding the deal.
Loyalty to Democrats
The new poll is indeed likely to reinforce the trend and help inject spine into nervous Democrats. Not only does it show strong support among U.S. Jews for an Iran deal. It also strongly suggests that the Jewish community remains fundamentally loyal to both Obama and the Democratic Party, particularly its presumed 2016 presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, who has publicly supported Obama’s Iran policy. Asked about a hypothetical race between Clinton and Jeb Bush, 68% of respondents indicated they would support the former secretary of state. Only 30 percent indicated a preference for Bush.
Fifty-six percent of respondents voiced approval for Obama’s performance as president. That was roughly 11 points higher than his approval rating among the general public on the days the survey was conducted. It was also 35 points higher than the approval rating (21%) given to Congress by the same Jewish respondents. More than two thirds of respondents (68%) said they had an unfavorable view of the Republican Party.
Asked to choose between two statements—1) that Obama has gone too far in his criticism of Netanyahu and does not sufficiently support Israel or 2) whether his criticism of Netanyahu’s policies is appropriate and it is inaccurate to claim that Obama doesn’t support Israel—57 percent of respondents chose the second.
Moreover, strong majorities of the Jewish respondents said they supported a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a position that, despite an endorsement from former President George W. Bush, appears increasingly to have been abandoned or ignored by Republicans in Congress who, no doubt under pressure from the big donors at the RJC, such as Sheldon Adelson and Paul Singer, have aligned their views more closely with Netanyahu’s Likud policies and even leaders of the settler movement. Nearly three of four respondents (72%) said that they agreed with the creation of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza (33% strongly agree; 39% somewhat agree). That percentage fell to 65% (23% strongly agree; 42% somewhat) when East Jerusalem as the capital of an independent Palestine was added to the formula. Two-thirds of respondents said that they agreed with the assertion that a two-state solution was an “important national security interest for the United States.”
Iran’s Low Priority
Remarkably, Iran was given a low priority by the poll’s respondents among a list of national issues faced by Obama and the Congress. Asked to rate the two “most important” priorities they felt the government should be addressing, Iran rated dead last out of 11 issues, with only six percent of respondents naming it as either the most or second-most important priority. By comparison, the most urgent priority, the economy, was named by 45% of respondents, followed by the Islamic State at 29%, government spending at 25%, and health care at 22%. A mere seven percent of respondents cited Israel as the first or second most important priority.
Despite Iran’s being accorded such a low policy priority, two-thirds of respondents said that they have been following the nuclear negotiations (22% a great deal;” 45% “some”). Respondents were then asked:
As you may know, the U.S. and other countries have imposed strict economic sanctions against Iran while that country has nuclear facilities which could eventually allow it to produce its own nuclear weapons. Do you favor or oppose an agreement ath would ease some of those economic sanctions and, in exchange, require Iran to accept major restrictions on its nuclear program, but not end it completely, and submit to greater international inspection of its nuclear facilities?
Fifty-nine percent said that they favored such an agreement; 41% said they would oppose it. The greatest support came from Jews who identified themselves as “Reform” (63%) or “no particular denomination” (61%); Democrats (69%); and under age 40 (68%).
Respondents were then provided more details about the impending deal:
Now, imagine that the U.S. Britain, Germany, France, China, Russia, and Iran reach a final agreement that places significant limits on Iran’s nuclear program to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. The agreement imposes intrusive inspections of Iran’s nuclear facilities by international nuclear experts, and it caps the level at which Iran can enrich uranium to far below what is necessary to make a nuclear weapon. In exchange for limiting its nuclear program and agreeing to intrusive inspections, Iran would receive phased relief from U.S. and international economic sanctions, as Iran complies with the terms of the agreement. Would you support or oppose this agreement?
More than three quarters of respondents (77.5%) answered affirmatively (26% strongly support), while 22.5% answered negatively (8% strongly oppose).
The poll results appear to confirm a more dovish and less pessimistic trend regarding Iran among U.S. Jews over the last several years. In its last major survey of U.S. Jewish attitudes conducted in early October 2013, the American Jewish Committee found a marked decline in hawkishness compared to the previous year. Fifty-two percent of AJC’s 1,000-some respondents said that they would support a U.S. attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities if diplomatic efforts and economic sanctions failed to prevent Tehran from developing nuclear weapons. That was down from 64% the year before. At the same time, 45% said they would oppose a strike, up from 34% in 2012.
In addition, 46% of respondents said it was either very or somewhat likely that U.S. diplomacy “can stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons,” up from 35.5% the previous year. The survey was conducted shortly after the visit by newly elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to New York for the UN General Assembly.
Photo: Charles Schumer