Obama needs to charm skeptical Israelis in visit

Obama needs to charm skeptical Israelis in visit Obama and Netanyahu at the White House (AP Photo)

JERUSALEM (AP) — Barack Obama’s vow to take his message straight to the public during his first presidential visit to Israel will be a tough sell with many Israelis who consider him naive, too soft on the nation’s enemies and cool to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Overcoming this perception will require a major charm offensive and an uncompromising U.S. pledge to stand behind Israel, especially when it comes to stopping Iran’s suspect nuclear program. Without a major initiative in his pocket for making peace between Israel and the Palestinians, the U.S. president will use his three-day visit, which begins on Wednesday, primarily as a means to convey a close alliance with Israel.

Rather than address Israeli leaders in parliament, as his predecessor George W. Bush did, Obama will deliver his main speech at a Jerusalem auditorium packed with university students. Tickets for Obama’s speech on Thursday at a 1,000-seat convention center are much in demand, and students are entering ticket raffles across the country.

“He could have spoken to politicians or tycoons, but instead he chose to speak to us,” said Lotem Cazes, a 25-year-old political science student at Ben-Gurion University in the southern city of Beersheba. “It’s very moving. Even though he knows that not everyone likes him here he is still coming and trying to help.”

In another effort to woo the Israeli public, Obama granted an exclusive interview with Channel 2 TV at the White House.

“What this trip allows me to do is once again to connect to the Israeli people and there is no substitute to that. The bonds between our two countries are so strong, not just shared values but shared families, shared businesses,” he said in the interview, which aired Thursday. “And for me to be able to directly speak to the Israeli people and talk about our unshakable commitment to Israel, but also to talk about hopefully a shared vision of a more peaceful and prosperous future during a time when we know there is a lot of tumult in the area, it is a great opportunity for me. I’m really looking forward to it.”

Throughout the interview, he referred to Netanyahu by his nickname “Bibi.”

The U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv launched a Facebook competition for 20 tickets to hear the president and thousands applied. The embassy also has unveiled a life-sized cutout of the president so people can pose for photos with his likeness.

American flags are lining Israeli highways and an enthusiastic embrace of Obama would start a new chapter in his relations with Israel.

Disappointment has marked Obama’s previous visits to the region. On those trips, he passed over Israel and stopped in Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, where he delivered a landmark speech aimed at improving ties with the Muslim world. The speech, in which he criticized Israeli West Bank settlements, was seen in Israel as overly appeasing to the Arabs at their expense.

“I don’t feel like he’s done anything special for Israel,” said Oshri Biton, a 40-year-old Jerusalem merchant. “As president, he has to be a friend of Israel’s. But he’s a friend who pats you on the shoulder. He doesn’t give you a hug.”

Israelis also will be looking for reassurance from Obama over his stance on Iran’s suspect nuclear program.

Israel views a nuclear armed Iran as a threat to its existence, and Netanyahu has hinted at launching a pre-emptive military strike on the Islamic Republic. Obama has said that while he prefers using diplomacy over force, all options remain on the table. Tehran denies it is seeking atomic weapons, insisting its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.

Relations during Obama’s first term in office were mostly characterized by high-profile spats with Netanyahu, over peacemaking efforts with the Palestinians, Israeli settlement building in the West Bank and Iran. In public appearances together, the two have shown little personal chemistry and looked uncomfortable with one another.

Eytan Gilboa, an expert on Israel-U.S. relations at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv, said most Israelis made a distinction between the United States, Obama the person and Obama the president.

A survey Gilboa conducted last year found that more than 90 percent of Israelis polled had a favorable opinion of America and Americans. More than two-thirds liked Obama personally, but fewer than 50 percent approved of his Mideast policies and his treatment of Netanyahu. When asked about specific policies, only one-third approved of Obama’s approach to Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking and even fewer approved of his policies toward Iran, Gilboa added.

The survey of 500 Israelis had a margin of error of 4 percentage points.

“The most powerful explanation is that Israelis think he cares less about Israel and more about other countries,” Gilboa said.

Under the Obama administration, Israel has enjoyed its greatest security cooperation ever. The president and his team have been lauded by Israeli defense officials, particularly for backing the “Iron Dome” anti-missile defense system that recently shot down hundreds of rockets during a round of fighting against Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip. But the goodwill hasn’t filtered down to the public.

Obama’s visit, at the start of his second term and just as a new Israeli government takes shape, looks to open a new page and send a message to Israel — as well as its adversaries — that the U.S.-Israel bond is unshakable.

While policy issues are sure to dominate Obama’s meetings with Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres, he is not expected to exert major pressure and most of his visit is expected to be centered on ceremonial events and his efforts to seek public appeal.

Obama is scheduled to visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and lay a wreath on the grave of the slain Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. He is to tour the Israel Museum and an exposition of products from the country’s booming high-tech sector.

Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, said Thursday that the president would reinforce U.S. support for the Palestinian Authority and would meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during a trip to the West Bank city of Ramallah.

The Palestinians aren’t too giddy about the president either. Early in his administration, Obama T-shirts were a big seller on Palestinian streets after he pushed Netanyahu to curb the construction of settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, where the Palestinians hope to build their state. That, however, gave way to disappointment, especially after the White House refused to support the Palestinian’s bid for independence at the United Nations. In recent days, posters of Obama have been vandalized in the Palestinian territories.

Obama sought to restart peace talks in 2010, but the effort collapsed within weeks. The Palestinians refuse to resume negotiations unless Israel stops building settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. Netanyahu says talks should resume without preconditions, and says the Palestinians didn’t return to the table even when he imposed a 10-month construction slowdown. He has allowed stepped-up construction in the territories since the United Nations moved to recognize a de facto state of Palestine in November.

Amnon Cavari, an expert in American presidential politics at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, a college near Tel Aviv, said he didn’t think Obama would try to use the Israeli outreach effort as a way to pressure the government into concessions.

If anything, he said it had more to do with domestic American issues. Obama’s shunning of Israel in the first term did not sit well with Jewish-American voters and a show of friendship could go a long way for Democrats in 2014 midterm elections.

“In the next four years there are going to be major changes in the Middle East, one way or the other,” he said, referring primarily to issues over Iran. “Coming to Israel conveys the following message: The situation is not simple. The United States is behind you.'”