How to Talk to Israel’s Voters

The planned speech to Congress by Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, on March 3 has deeply agitated American-Israeli relations. The animus between President Obama and Mr. Netanyahu has not helped, but more than a personal conflict is at stake: Each has sharply different views on how to advance his nation’s interests.

While the immediate cause of the tension is Mr. Netanyahu’s opposition to a deal over Iran’s nuclear program, the roots of disagreement lie with the prime minister’s recalcitrance on Palestinian statehood. The United States considers the creation of two states living side by side in peace and security an imperative. It is now abundantly clear that Mr. Netanyahu does not. A widening gulf over this issue will have serious implications for the United States.

The Israeli occupation of the West Bank is becoming more entrenched. The Palestinians have little interest in direct negotiations with a Netanyahu-led government they mistrust. Instead, they will likely exercise every possible lever to alter an intolerable status quo, while Israel seeks to make permanent its occupation. The United States will be stuck in the middle, under pressure to support Israel diplomatically even as Israel’s leaders pursue policies contrary to America’s stated positions, particularly on settlement expansion.

This is what makes the election of an Israeli government committed to a workable two-state solution so important for American interests. This will not be enough to ensure the achievement of a final status agreement, but it’s an essential first step. With Israelis heading to the polls on March 17, America must make clear to Israelis the consequences of electing a government opposed to this goal.

Last month, the Washington-based Foundation for Middle East Peace commissioned the Israeli firm New Wave Research to poll Israeli voters for a report on the America-Israel bilateral relationship. What we discovered suggests that the United States’ aims on this issue are in line with Israeli public opinion.

Israelis overwhelmingly believe their country depends on American support. Half of those polled think there is a crisis in relations between the two countries. More than a third think that returning Mr. Netanyahu to power will make the situation worse; and a plurality sees the center-left alliance known as the Zionist Camp as more likely than Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud party to improve the situation.

The results also suggest there is an opportunity for the United States to sharpen the choice facing Israeli voters — and in a manner consistent with American policy. Three-quarters of Israelis agree that it is important that the party they will vote for moves forward in negotiating with the Palestinians; this includes the more than 60 percent of those polled who consider themselves centrist or right-leaning voters. These numbers are significantly higher than in 2012, shortly before Israel’s last election.

A majority would also support the Obama administration’s releasing its own framework for a final status agreement. Such a step could lend support to the center-left parties that Israelis believe are more likely to move forward with negotiations; it would also highlight the intransigence of Mr. Netanyahu’s government.

Half of those polled agreed that building new settlements is damaging to Israel’s legitimacy and security. Among those who hold this view, a strong majority agreed that if America were to make clear its opposition to settlement expansion, it would make them more critical of Israel, not the United States. So if, for example, the United States supported — or at least abstained from — a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning settlement expansion, it could move Israeli voters to support parties less committed to the settlement project.

We found little evidence that these moves would provoke a backlash in Israel. If anything, the opposite: 46 percent of centrist voters said that American diplomatic actions would make them more inclined to vote for a centrist or left-wing party, and an equal number said it would have no effect. In general, our polling suggests centrist Israelis are actually in broad ideological agreement with left-wing voters.

There are certainly risks for the Obama administration to appear to be interfering in Israeli domestic politics — though Mr. Netanyahu’s brazen effort to use Congress as an election prop hardly qualifies him to cry foul. The impact of any American effort to influence Israeli voters is also likely to be limited. But given Israel’s complex coalition politics, a shift of just a few seats could determine who leads the next government.

For too long, the United States has failed to impose any consequences for Israel’s pursuit of policies that America opposes. The Obama administration doesn’t need heavy-handed steps to get that point across. Rather, it should make clear to Israel’s voters the importance it attaches to American interests in the region — including the achievement of a two-state solution that provides for Israel’s security and the Palestinians’ legitimate national aspirations.

Michael A. Cohen is a fellow at the Century Foundation. Matthew Duss is the president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace.

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