Obama needs to charm skeptical Israelis in visit

By Aron Heller

Associated Press

Published: Friday, March 15 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

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.'"

Follow Heller on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/aronhellerap

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