A majority of Americans, including Jews, now support military action to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons program, according to a controversial new poll, reflecting what several Jewish leaders say are sharp shifts in Israel as well.
The national survey, conducted by Zogby International, shows that slightly more than half of Americans — and more than two-thirds of Jews — now favor a strike against Iran before it becomes a nuclear power.
Even analysts who challenge the accuracy of the survey describe a jarring realignment of communal priorities as the war talk grows in Washington and Jerusalem and as Jewish groups refocus priorities. The new poll could be “the leading edge of change” in the community, said a top Jewish activist here.
“Anecdotally, we see an extraordinary shift in the Jewish community,” said Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, founder and president of The Israel Project, a group that has made Iran a top priority. “A year ago, nobody was interested in hearing about Iran from us; they thought we were overreacting. Why didn’t we focus on things like Darfur? Now we’re seeing a big difference.”
While major Jewish groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) have been pushing the Iran issue for more than a decade, a sense of urgency is only now percolating down to the community level, she said. A turning point was Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ’s visit to New York in September, which ratcheted up media and organizational attention.
Ahmadinejad has called repeatedly for Israel’s destruction, and with Iran moving toward building a nuclear facility, the dangers to Israel and the Mideast seem to have galvanized attention.
“We have seen a dramatic shift in public opinion in the past 12 months, and particularly since Ahmadinejad came to Columbia,” Mizrahi said. “And the Jewish community, in particular, is really starting to wake up on the issue.”
A corresponding shift may be taking place in Israel, as well. According to Jewish leaders here who have met recently with Israeli officials, those officials are concluding that with economic sanctions and diplomacy having little impact, Israel is on its own when it comes to stopping Iran.
“For a period of time, Israel was insisting that Iran is not an Israeli issue, but an international one because of the threat it posed to the world,” said Shoshana Bryen, special projects director for the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA). “Now I see a growing belief that since the world won’t deal with it, it looks more like something Israel will have to deal with.”
That change, which Bryen described as “surprising,” could presage an Israeli military attack — “but I don’t think that’s necessarily true. I just see a huge new awareness that this has happened to the Jews before, and it could happen again.”
Other Jewish leaders are also sensing a shift in Israel.
“I would say that there’s a growing sense in Israel that something will have to be done to remove the threat of Iranian nuclear weapons by the end of the Bush administration,” said Martin Raffel, assistant executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), who led a group delegation to Israel last month. “Everyone believes it will be far preferable to resolve this through diplomatic and economic means, but the prospect of some kind of military option seems definitely on the table.
“There is a real frustration with the pace and vigor of the international community’s economic and diplomatic response, but still a hope that it will be effective,” he said.
Raffel said that official opinion in Jerusalem is “changing rapidly” toward focusing on a military response to the threat posed by Iran.
Jewish public opinion in this country, he said, is also starting to harden along more hawkish lines — although he said Jews have not given up hope that a non-military way can be found to prevent Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold.
Indeed, the polling data may conceal a far more nuanced view among an American Jewish population that remains staunchly opposed to the ongoing Iraq war and skeptical of this administration’s ability to wage another one, yet fearful about the world’s inaction on Iran.
And some describe a growing acceptance of the military option — but only if someone else takes the risks.
“Many in the United States believe Israel should (take military action), said Mizrahi, “and many in Israel believe the U.S. should do it.”
The Israel Project focus groups here showed that “many Americans believe Israel is more effective militarily; they were very impressed by reports about the [Israeli] strike on Syria. That may underestimate how complicated the military situation is, but it’s the perception.”
Last week’s poll by Zogby International came as the Bush administration ratchets up both its warlike rhetoric and its sanctions against Teheran and war opponents intensify efforts to erect obstacles to U.S. military action.
According to the national survey, 52 percent of likely voters now would support a U.S. military strike to prevent Iran from growing nuclear — and 53 percent believe such a strike is likely before next year’s presidential election.
Republicans, according to the survey, are far more likely to support the military option, but still, 41 percent of Democrats indicated support.
In one surprise, Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) emerged as the candidate “best equipped” to deal with the Iranian threat, selected by 21 percent of respondents. Clinton was followed by former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani at 15 percent.
But critics point out that the Zogby poll is not consistent with other national surveys. A recent CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll suggested opposition to the military option is growing, with 68 percent of Americans saying they would oppose a decision to strike Iranian targets.
And in a Fox news poll, only 29 percent of Americans advocated military action “before President Bush leaves office,” with 54 present preferring to “let the next president deal with Iran.”
The Jewish numbers in the Zogby poll — with 48 percent “very supportive” of a U.S. military strike and 20 percent “somewhat supportive” — are dramatically different from last year’s American Jewish Committee survey, in which only 38 percent said they supported U.S. military action.
But even critics of Zogby’s numbers say there has been a shift in Jewish focus on the issue, although few say they are witnessing big swing toward the military option.
“I’ve been traveling the country, and [Iran is] all people are talking about,” said Rabbi Steve Gutow, executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA).
Rabbi Gutow said he does see a clear shift toward a more hawkish position in Jewish communities, but that it doesn’t clearly point to the war option.
“Jewish public opinion is very unsettled,” he said. “There is a much greater sense of concern, but also a sense of confusion. Even those who say they favor military action have a lot of qualms about it.”
Gutow said he hears from some community leaders who “believe it may be necessary to use the military option. But there are just as many, and probably more, who are concerned that if this administration does go to war, it would be ill-conceived and create even greater problems in the Middle East.”
Ronald Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, said he sees an “increased awareness of the issue and a boiling down of the issue to its main components: will sanctions work? Is military action necessary?”
He said the Jewish community in Washington hasn’t “crossed the threshold” to explicit support for military action.
“If you took a poll here, most would say they are supporting sanctions and divestment, but remain wary about the possibility of military force being used against Iran,” he said.
But he said that might be starting to change.
“I expect the number who favor either an Israeli or a U.S., or a combined, strike will go up as the president’s term draws to an end and as Ahmadinejad continues to make outrageous comments,” he said.
A big-city federation executive said that even many Jews in his community who see no option to military action are wary of publicly expressing that view.
“There is a perception that we took an undeserved hit on Iraq,” this official said, “so why should we want to take a hit on Iran?”
JCPA’s Raffel said he sees a rise in the number of Jews here who still hope divestment, sanctions and diplomatic pressure will work — but who see only bad choices if they don’t.
“If push comes to shove, if you ask American Jews which is worse — a military strike to set back Iran’s nuclear weapons program, or Iran having a nuclear weapon — most say the worst scenario is having [Iran] get nuclear weapons,” he said. “Which is to say: there is no good option here.”