President Bill Clinton told reporters at the Aspen Ideas Festival on Saturday, July 2, that he liked Republican presidential hopeful Jon Huntsman. "He did a very nice, a good job for America as ambassador to China. I think he's quite an impressive man. He's got an impressive family. I had the honor of meeting one of his children once… and he wasn't a right-wing ideologue," said Clinton.
If Clinton can like and admire former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, why can't Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who is known for his affinity to Republican politics, do the same? This is not an easy question to answer because it may bear on the way American Jews will vote in the 2012 presidential election which Israel's prime ministers traditionally keep their fingers out of.
In 2009, 78 percent of the American-Jews voted for Barack Obama president and helped him get elected.
How will they cast their ballots for his second term?
Jerusalem was abuzz with this question during June and July, when American Jewish leaders and community machers make a point of visiting Jerusalem and touching base with prominent Israeli political and security leaders.
This year, they found the peak summer months sizzling with Middle East unrest and a host of dilemmas for Israel:
Iran's rapid advance toward a nuclear bomb capability, sparking a regional nuclear race joined by Saudi Arabia and Turkey – is one.
And just across Israel's northern border, Syria is convulsed with its president's savage violence:
Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are stalled, forcing Israel to defend its legitimacy as the Palestinians prepare to seek UN recognition of their state within the 1967 borders (see HOT POINTS OF July 6);
If they go ahead, US Congress is threatening to halt financial aid to the virtually bankrupt Palestinian Authority. (The US transfers funds not to the PA but rather directly to projects in which it is involved).
Israelis fear White House tolerance of radicals
But most troubling is the somber cloud hanging over the relationship between the Netanyahu government and Barack Obama's Washington, of which all the visitors to Jerusalem are very conscious.
The American media have made much of the prickly personal and political relationship between the two men. But it's not just Netanyahu: Most Israeli politicians regardless of party differences (excepting perhaps the small leftist Meretz) don't trust Obama or his protestations of friendships and commitment to guarding Israel's security.
A large majority, more than 76 percent, believe the US President has little sympathy for their country and much more for the Palestinian cause. They see him actively supporting radical Islamic elements like the Muslim Brotherhood which is dedicated to Israel's destruction.
Their mistrust is partly nurtured by the gallery of advisers surrounding the US president – people like Jeremiah Wright, Rashid Khalidi, Bill Ayers, the highly influential Samantha Power, Obama's adviser on Muslim affairs Dalia Mogahed, and Charles Freeman, whom Obama invited to chair the National Intelligence Council.
Israelis have a long political memory, and they recall that, just a year ago, in March 2010, John O. Brennan, Obama's top terrorism and intelligence adviser, called Hizballah a "very interesting organization," and urged a distinction between its moderates and military echelon.
Democrats unforgiving of Netanyahu's May 24 speech
Today, some trace the current administration's soft treatment of Syrian President Bashar Assad to the sentiment Brennan voiced then. Washington is viewed from Jerusalem as helping Assad cling to power against all odds, though aided in his repressive crackdown by Iran and Hizballah.
This episode has strengthened the average Israeli's doubts about where Obama's sympathies really lie.
He is not the first pro-Arab Democratic US president. Israelis have far from fond memories of the reign of Jimmy Carter in the 1970s, despite his contribution to Israel's peace accord with Egypt – the first with any Arab country. They remain resentful of his administration's attitude towards the Jewish state.
All the same, most American Jewish leaders visiting Jerusalem this year are urging the prime minister to stay out of the Democratic-Republican contest for the presidency out of three key considerations:
1. A reelected Obama may well settle scores with Netanyahu, accusing him of crossing US partisan lines, which past Israeli prime ministers were careful to step around, when in his May 24 speech to the two houses of Congress the prime minister challenged the president's principles on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
One Jewish leader told Netanyahu, "Not only will President Obama not forgive you for bringing Congress to its feet 31 times to cheer words which confuted presidential policy; but Senator John Kerry, the powerful chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, complains that never in his entire senate career has he been forced to his feet so many times."
Netanyahu is therefore advised not to further fuel the anger prevailing in the entire Democratic Party.
Obama's chances are better than any Republican contender
2. He is also urged not to count on any visible Republican contender defeating Obama, despite the hurdles he faces for re-election.
This advice aims at countering the counsel of a certain group of Jewish leaders, headed by Binyamin Netanyahu's main supporter, Sheldon Gary Adelson, the fifth richest American and the 16th wealthiest person in the world (net worth of $23.3 billion), who are pushing him to abandon the neutral posture traditionally adopted by Israeli prime ministers and indirectly support Republican presidential hopeful Jon Huntsman.
Obama may not look good now but his chances of getting back in are better than any likely Republican rivals, including Huntsman, says the group opposed to Adelson.
3. Other Jewish leaders, including some Republicans, have shared with Netanyahu opinion surveys run by their organizations in their communities. They say the trend is clear: The 78 percent who voted for Obama in 2008 may not be quite as solid now as then but, all the same, an estimated 70 percent are still expected to back him in 2012 for a second term.
Although many Americans have woken up to the fact that Obama is not Israel's best friend, a substantial body will not switch parties, although a margin may opt for a Republican like Huntsman.
The shift in Jewish opinion will find expression less at the ballot box and more in campaign funding: Jewish contributions to Obama's campaign are expected to drop by 40 percent.
Netanyahu listened gravely to the advice offered him by the top figures of American Jewry, but gave no sign to whose advice he would heed. Meanwhile, the US presidential campaign is going great guns in Jerusalem.