Does Bibi Have the American People Hypnotized or Something?

09.17.12 10:31 AM ET

Sullivan was quite good yesterday on how appalling it is that a foreign head of state is inserting himself so directly and obviously in the middle of a US election on behalf of one candidate:

When the prime minister of an ally is openly backing one political party in the US elections in order to plunge this country into a war whose consequences are unknowable and potentially catastrophic is a new low. If it is allowed to succeed, if Romney were to win and hand over US foreign policy in the Middle East to Netanyahu and Israel's growing religious far right, then we will be back to the Bush era without even a veneer of sympathy for Arab democratic convulsions.

Harrumph to that. But I have a question. Does Bibi have this power over events? When I hear liberals and some others talk about the possibility of Israel attacking Iran before our election, the clearly implicit idea is that he does have this power. I think not. I think, in fact, that if Israel did this, the Netanyahu government would seriously damage: a, Mitt Romney's already diminishing chances of victory; b, Netanyahu's own tenuous standing among the American people; c, Israel's reputation and level of support among same.

I spent part of the weekend looking over some polling on this. There isn't much on Netanyahu himself, but I did see this Gallup survey from late July. Bibi is viewed more favorably than unfavorably, but when you break it down it's almost wholly a function of, you guessed it, wildly enthusiastic backing among Republicans.

Overall, Bibi had a 35-23 favorable advantage, wih 41 percent not knowing enough. But it was 50-16 among Republicans. Independents were more narrowly favorable, 32-23, and Democrats were unfavorable, 25-31. So if you combine Democrats and independents, it's a wash within the margin of error.

On the question of Israel bombing Iran, the polling is all over the map. My guess would be that outcomes depended on how the questions were phrased and whether the issue was heavy in the news at the time. Look at this handy little summary of five different recent polls. On whether Americans would support Israel attacking Iran, the top end was 62 percent, and the lowest figure 42 percent. It's worth remembering that those numbers combine "very" and "somewhat" supportive, the latter category consisting, obviously, of people who aren't as attached to their position. So I'd reckon it's fair to say that not all of that 62 or 42 would line up behind Bibi in the event.

Here's what I think would happen if Israel did that. First it would depend on how successful it was. But let's say reports would be conflicting on that. Obama would probably issue a mixed statement: cautious support with a dollop or two of condemnation and concern, basically expressing the feelings of most people in the middle. Romney, of course, would start caterwauling in his usual desperate way, way too obviously trying to use the event to his political advantage. He'd botch it, as he's botched everything foreign-policy related in this campaign.

And I think most Americans would smell a rat. Most Americans don't want war. (One thing that comes through in all the polls I looked at--negotiate with Iran scored higher than attack.) They'd look awfully askance at anything like this happening five or whatever weeks before an election. And with all the PNAC-ers and their sort popping back up on TV doing the same old 2003 war dance, I think most Americans in the center would say to themselves, "Uh-oh, this crowd again? Didn't they learn anything the first time around?" The public's memory isn't very long, but with regard to this issue, it's that long, anyway.

And Jews? We'ver just seen a new raft of polling putting Obama in the low 70's among Jews, which would put him just a little worse off than last time. I don't doubt that some American Jewish opinion and money would swing toward Romney, but there's little reason to think it would be dramatic. Jews have shown repeatedly that they're not single-issue voters, and we know all about, chiefly from my colleague Peter Beinart, the ambivalence about Israel among US Jews under 40.

And beyond the election: Netanyahu would be risking enormous erosion of American public opinion in support of his country. If a strike leads ineluctably toward the kinds of things Andrew discusses above, war-weary Americans won't forget how it started. American sympathy for Israel goes back, of course, to a great historical crime, a promise made in the wake of that crime, and the creation of an immediately embattled state that Americans could easily identify with and get behind.

Americans still basically support Israel--when it comes to the Palestinian situation, overwhelmingly so. But if Netanyahu thinks Americans are incapable of making distinctions and seeing a nakedly political action as a nakedly political action, I think he's in for a surprise. The American people don't want to risk being led into a new war by a foreign country.

And the establishment figures of American right will find--yet again, as they're finding out about Medicare, about taxes, about gay marriage, about community vs. individual liberty, about alleged apologies for America--that is it they who are out of touch with the American middle. Bibi probably thinks the people he's listening to have the country's pulse. Someone better straighten him out before he risks losing public support in the last major country in the world that is his friend.