A new survey of American Jews shows strong support for a more assertive American role in Middle East peace efforts, even if that means exerting greater pressure on Israel to reach a compromise with its Arab neighbors.
The poll released by J Street - a Jewish-American political action group that describes itself as pro-peace - has some good news for President Barack Obama.
The survey shows that Jewish-Americans - who gave Obama 78 percent of their vote in last November's presidential election - solidly back his Middle East policies. Seventy-two percent say they approve of the way he is handling the Arab-Israeli conflict.
"This poll shows that American Jews support President Obama's initiatives to reassert American leadership in the region, as it relates to advancing the peace process," says Jim Gerstein.
Gerstein's firm, Gerstein/Agne Strategic Communications, conducted the poll for J Street after both U.S. and Israeli elections and the Israel-Gaza conflict. Gerstein says the new poll also shows solid support among American Jews for a central tenet of the J Street organization: that peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is key to a broader Middle East peace and is therefore in the national interests of both Israel and the United States.
Gerstein notes that when asked whether military superiority alone or a peace agreement with a strong military would provide better security for Israel, Jewish Americans favor a peace agreement, 49 to 36 percent.
"In our survey, by a 13 point margin, American Jews believe that a peace agreement is better for Israel's long-term security than military superiority," he says.
Gerstein adds that 69 percent of American Jews say they would support U.S. negotiations with a unified Hamas-Palestinian Authority government to achieve a peace agreement with Israel. Respondents were reminded before the question that the United States and Israel do not recognize Hamas leadership in Gaza because of its support for terrorism and its refusal to recognize Israel's right to exist.
With a new government about to take power in Israel that might not support the long-sought two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the poll reveals that most American Jews favor the idea of Israel and a neighboring Palestinian state peacefully co-existing.
"We asked people to react to a peace agreement that is very similar to where the parties - the Palestinian, Israeli and American negotiators - were eight years ago following the Camp David talks," Gerstein says. "That peace proposal included land swaps, land for peace, addressed Jerusalem, addressed the refugees, and by a 76 to 24 margin, American Jews supported that peace agreement."
The poll results are based on a survey of 800 self-identified American Jews conducted between late February and early March 2009. The responses also suggest that the J Street organization, now just one year old, is starting to gain traction with many American Jews.
Isaac Luria is J Street's campaign director. He says there has long been a need for a counterweight to the influential pro-Israel lobby in the United States, known as AIPAC, and other right-wing American Jewish organizations.
"I think there is a need for an alternative in Washington, because the people who have been really the ones influencing American foreign policy when it comes to Israel and the Middle East and speaking for the Jewish community on these issues have come from the far right, and they do not represent the majority of American Jews on these issues."
Luria believes the poll suggests that many American Jews believe it is possible to support Israel without being pro-war or necessarily agreeing with Israeli government policies. While there is a vigorous debate inside Israel itself about what is best for Israel's long-term security, Luria says similar debate has been lacking in the U.S. media, within the American Jewish community and in the U.S. Congress.
"We went up to Capitol Hill and met with lawmakers. We presented the findings [of our survey] also to the White House," he says. "We are showing that there is a broad…political support for these positions in the American Jewish community. That undermines one of the key points that those in the far right like to make."
Luria says the J Street organization hopes to contribute to the shift in American policy toward a more active, assertive U.S. role in Middle East peacemaking. He believes such a shift will be good for both Israel and the Palestinians and will help the Obama administration achieve its goal of better relations with the Muslim world.