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Archive for April 15th, 2010

… Mr. Obama, frustrated by the inability of the Israelis and the Palestinians to come to terms, will offer his own proposed parameters for an eventual Palestinian state.

The Obama administration’s new thinking, and the tougher policies toward Israel that could flow from it, has alarmed American Jewish leaders accustomed to the Bush administration’s steadfast support. They are not used to seeing issues like Jewish housing in the West Bank or East Jerusalem linked, even by implication, to the security of American soldiers. Some fret that it raises questions about the centrality of the American alliance with Israel …

“Why does the thrust of this administration’s Middle East rhetoric seem to blame Israel for the lack of movement on peace talks?”—Ronald S. Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress.


 

Obama Speech Signals a U.S. Shift on Middle East

By Mark Landler and Helene Cooper

It was just a phrase at the end of President Obama’s news conference on Tuesday, but it was a stark reminder of a far-reaching shift in how the United States views the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and how aggressively it might push for a peace agreement.

When Mr. Obama declared that resolving the long-running Middle East dispute was a “vital national security interest of the United States,” he was highlighting a change that has resulted from a lengthy debate among his top officials over how best to balance support for Israel against other American interests.

This shift, described by administration officials who did not want to be quoted by name when discussing internal discussions, is driving the White House’s urgency to help broker a Middle East peace deal. It increases the likelihood that Mr. Obama, frustrated by the inability of the Israelis and the Palestinians to come to terms, will offer his own proposed parameters for an eventual Palestinian state.

Mr. Obama said conflicts like the one in the Middle East ended up “costing us significantly in terms of both blood and treasure” — drawing an explicit link between the Israeli-Palestinian strife and the safety of American soldiers as they battle Islamic extremism and terrorism in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Mr. Obama’s words reverberated through diplomatic circles in large part because they echoed those of Gen. David H. Petraeus, the military commander overseeing America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In recent Congressional testimony, the general said that the lack of progress in the Middle East created a hostile environment for the United States. He has denied reports that he was suggesting that soldiers were being put in harm’s way by American support for Israel.

But the impasse in negotiations “does create an environment,” he said Tuesday in a speech in Washington. “It does contribute, if you will, to the overall environment within which we operate.”

The glimmers of daylight between United States and Israeli interests began during President George W. Bush’s administration, when the United States became mired in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Three years ago, Condoleezza Rice, then secretary of state, declared during a speech in Jerusalem that a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians was a “strategic interest” of the United States. In comments that drew little notice at the time, she said, “The prolonged experience of deprivation and humiliation can radicalize even normal people.”

But President Bush shied away from challenging Israeli governments.

The Obama administration’s new thinking, and the tougher policies toward Israel that could flow from it, has alarmed American Jewish leaders accustomed to the Bush administration’s steadfast support. They are not used to seeing issues like Jewish housing in the West Bank or East Jerusalem linked, even by implication, to the security of American soldiers. Some fret that it raises questions about the centrality of the American alliance with Israel, which the administration flatly denies.

“In the past, the problem of who drinks out of whose well in Nablus has not been a strategic interest of the United States,” said Martin S. Indyk, a former United States ambassador to Israel and the vice president and the director of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. He said there was an interest now because of the tens of thousands of troops fighting Islamist insurgencies abroad at the same time that the United States was trying to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

“Will resolving the Palestinian issue solve everything?” Mr. Indyk said. “No. But will it help us get there? Yes.”

The administration’s immediate priority, officials said, is jump-starting indirect talks between Israelis and Palestinians. There is still a vigorous debate inside the administration about what to do if such talks were to go nowhere, which experts said is the likeliest result, given the history of such negotiations. Some officials, like Gen. James L. Jones, the national security adviser, advocate putting forward an American peace plan, while others, like the longtime Middle East peace negotiator Dennis B. Ross, who now works in the National Security Council, favor a more incremental approach.

Last week, National Security Council officials met with outside Middle East experts to discuss the Arab Israeli conflict. Two weeks before, General Jones and Mr. Obama met with several national security advisers from previous administrations and discussed putting forward an American proposal, even though it would put pressure on both Israel and the Palestinians.

Several officials point out that Mr. Obama has now seized control of Middle East policy himself, particularly since the controversy several weeks ago when Israeli authorities announced new Jewish housing units in Jerusalem during a visit to Israel by Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. Mr. Obama, incensed by that snub, has given Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a list of demands, and relations between the United States and Israel have fallen into a chilly standoff.

“The president is re-evaluating the tactics his administration is employing toward Israel and the entire Middle East,” said Robert Wexler, a former Democratic congressman who resigned in January to lead the Center for Middle East Peace, a Washington-based nonprofit institution that is working for a peace agreement.

“I don’t think that anybody believes American lives are endangered or materially affected by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” said Mr. Wexler, who has close ties to administration officials. “That’s an oversimplification. However, you’d have to have blinders on not to recognize that there are issues in one arena that affect other arenas.”

For their part, administration officials insist that their support for Israel is unwavering. They point to intensive cooperation between the American and Israeli militaries, which they say has allowed Israel to retain a military edge over its neighbors.

The sense of urgency in Washington comes just as many Israelis have become disillusioned with the whole idea of resolving the conflict. Mr. Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition government has long been skeptical about the benefits of a peace deal with the Palestinians. But skepticism has taken root in the Israeli public as well, particularly after Israel saw little benefit from its traumatic withdrawal from Gaza in 2005.

Among American Jewish groups, there is less skepticism than alarm about the administration’s new direction. On Tuesday, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a powerful pro-Israel lobbying group, publicized letters to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, signed by 76 senators and 333 House members, that implored the administration to defuse tensions.

In an open letter to Mr. Obama from the World Jewish Congress, the organization’s president, Ronald S. Lauder, asked, “Why does the thrust of this administration’s Middle East rhetoric seem to blame Israel for the lack of movement on peace talks?”

Mr. Lauder, who said the letter was scheduled to be published Thursday as an advertisement in The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, said he discussed the letter with Mr. Netanyahu and received his support before taking out the ad.

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With the electorate angry, Republicans enthusiastic and Democrats seemingly less so, Obama’s party increasingly fears it could lose control of the House, if not the Senate, in his first midterms.

The poll found that people who identify themselves as tea party backers — nearly one in five Americans — are wealthier and better educated than the general public and tend to be white, male, married and older than 45. They tend to be Republican, but more conservative than Republicans in general, the poll found. They tend to see Obama as “very liberal” and are “angry” rather than merely dissatisfied with Washington.


 

Obama and Other Democrats Slide Further in the Polls

By Liz Sidoti

President Barack Obama’s national standing has slipped to a new low after his victory on the historic health care overhaul, even in the face of growing signs of economic revival, according to the latest Associated Press-GfK poll.

The survey shows the political terrain growing rockier for Obama and congressional Democrats heading into midterm elections, boosting Republican hopes for a return to power this fall.

Just 49 percent of people now approve of the job Obama’s doing overall, and less than that — 44 percent — like the way he’s handled health care and the economy. Last September, Obama hit a low of 50 percent in job approval before ticking a bit higher. His high-water mark as president was 67 percent in February of last year, just after he took office.

The news is worse for other Democrats. For the first time this year, about as many Americans approve of congressional Republicans as Democrats — 38 percent to 41 percent — and neither has an edge when it comes to the party voters want controlling Congress. Democrats also have lost their advantage on the economy; people now trust both parties equally on that, another first in 2010.

Roughly half want to fire their own congressman.

Adding to Democratic woes, people have grown increasingly opposed to the health care overhaul in the weeks since it became law; 50 percent now oppose it, the most negative measure all year. People also have a dim view of the economy though employers have begun to add jobs, including 162,000 in March. Just as many people rated the economy poor this month — 76 percent — as did last July.

And it could get worse for Democrats: One-third of those surveyed consider themselves tea party supporters, and three-quarters of those people are overwhelmingly Republicans or right-leaning independents. That means they are more likely to vote with the GOP in this fall’s midterms, when energized base voters will be crucial amid the typical low turnout of a non-presidential election year.

With the electorate angry, Republicans enthusiastic and Democrats seemingly less so, Obama’s party increasingly fears it could lose control of the House, if not the Senate, in his first midterms. The GOP, conversely, is emboldened as voters warm to its opposition to much of the president’s agenda.

On the minds of Democrats and Republicans alike: the Democratic bloodletting in 1994, when the GOP seized control of Congress two years after Bill Clinton was elected president. But the less-dispiriting news for Democrats is that it’s only April — a long way to November in politics.

Still, persuading change-minded voters to keep the status quo will be no easy task given that most people call details of the health care overhaul murky and that the unemployment rate is unlikely to fall below 9 percent by November.

The key for Obama and his party: firing up moribund Democratic voters while appealing to independents who are splitting their support after back-to-back national elections in which they tilted heavily toward Democrats and caused the power shift.

None of that will be easy.

Just listen to independent voters who typically decide elections.

“He’s moving the country into a socialized country,” Jim Fall, 73, of Wrightwood, Calif., said of the president. He worries that Obama is too “radical left wing” and that government has grown too big, saying: “He is constantly in our lives more and more and more and more.”

Fall was just as down on the Democratic-controlled Congress: “They’re horrible. I think all they do is talk,” he said, adding that Republicans acted no differently when they had power: “Just spend and spend and spend.”

In Spokane, Wash., Angela Hardin, 43, was just as disapproving.

“I don’t like what’s going on,” the small business owner said. “He is just making a huge mess out of everything. … He’s all over the map. It’s like, ‘Slow down! Breathe! Think!'”

As for Democrats in Congress, she said: “I’m not happy with them.” Republicans, she said, may be better. But she’s really ambivalent toward any of them: “It’s just beyond me how they can sit up there with all of their college degrees and fight like they were in middle school.”

The new poll findings also show:

— Equal percentages of Democrats — 87 percent — approve of Obama’s job performance as Republicans — 88 percent — disapprove. Independents are about split, 50 percent disapprove to 47 percent approve. And, when it comes to Congress, 91 percent of Republicans, 65 percent of independents and even 51 percent of Democrats disapprove.

— The tea party coalition remains fuzzy to most people; only 16 percent say they know a great deal or a lot about this political phenomenon born a year ago.

Obama remains a polarizing figure, as does Congress.

“He’s trying to do what he said we was going to do,” said David Jeter of Los Angeles, 51, who votes Democratic and co-owns a lighting business. Jeter credits Congress with passing health care but wonders: “Now what will they do? … I watch Congress with bated breath, but I don’t expect that anything is going to radically alter my life.”

A New York Times/CBS News poll released Thursday found that an overwhelming majority of tea party supporters believe Obama doesn’t share the values of most Americans or understand the problems of people like them.

The poll found that people who identify themselves as tea party backers — nearly one in five Americans — are wealthier and better educated than the general public and tend to be white, male, married and older than 45. They tend to be Republican, but more conservative than Republicans in general, the poll found. They tend to see Obama as “very liberal” and are “angry” rather than merely dissatisfied with Washington.

Though former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin draws raucous cheers at tea party rallies, a plurality of tea party supporters see her as unqualified to be president, according to the poll.

The AP-GfK Poll was conducted April 7-12, 2010 by GfK Roper Public Affairs and Media. It involved interviews with 1,001 adults nationwide on both landline and cellular telephones. It had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4.3 percentage points.

The Times/CBS News poll was conducted April 5-12. Its margin of sampling error was plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Associated Press Polling Director Trevor Tompson, AP News Survey Specialist Dennis Junius and AP Writers Alan Fram, Ann Sanner and Natasha Metzler contributed to this report.

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