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Obama appeal to Israeli public means risk

By Josef Federman

Associated Press

Published: Friday, March 22 2013 3:38 p.m. MDT

He said the tactic risked antagonizing Netanyahu, but that Obama deftly handled the visit. Obama's warm words for Israel, his repeated pledges to Israeli security, a visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and the many joint interests of the two countries all helped blunt potential criticism.

"It's a successful speech, but it's a far cry from solving the problem," he said.

In a statement, Netanyahu's office said he "shares President Obama's view regarding the need to advance a peace that ensures the security of Israel's citizens." It would not comment on Obama's appeals to the public.

Israelis themselves were divided over the significance of the speech.

"It was a seminal speech, even an historic one," wrote Shalom Yerushalmi, a commentator in the Maariv daily. "Will it work? Who knows?"

Tzipi Livni, the leader of a small dovish political party who is Netanyahu's new chief negotiator, said she hoped Obama's message would rally more Israelis to the country's peace camp.

"I would be very happy if Israeli citizens who heard him were convinced that this is what needs to be done," she said.

But Naftali Bennett, a Cabinet minister who leads a pro-settler party, rejected the speech. "A Palestinian state is not the right way," he wrote on his Facebook page.

Such divisions in the Cabinet are a key reason why it seems unlikely that Netanyahu will make any bold new concessions to restart talks. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is expected back in Israel on Saturday night to discuss the matter.

During the trip, Obama also had some tough words for the Palestinians. While criticizing Jewish settlements, Obama told the Palestinians to stop using the issue as an "excuse" to do nothing and stressed that disagreements can be resolved only through negotiations.

Hanan Ashrawi, a senior Palestinian official, said she found Obama's visit disappointing, but not surprising.

"I think the purpose of the visit, clearly, was to show support and identification with Israel," she said.

"The question has to be answered by the Americans, and the international community. How are they going to proceed from here?" she said. "It's not enough to say Kerry will be here frequently."

American presidents have a long history of using their position to cajole foreign audiences.

"I think presidents rightly see it as part of their duty," said political historian Evan Cornog, dean of the School of Communication at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York. "The U.S. is a nation of ideas."

In 1963, John F. Kennedy paid a historic visit to a divided Berlin to show solidarity with the people of West Germany. A quarter of a century later, Ronald Reagan famously urged Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down" the Berlin Wall.

More recently, George W. Bush spoke of spreading democracy in the Middle East and turning Iraq into a model democracy. Early in his term, Obama traveled to Cairo in hopes of ushering in a new era of relations with the Muslim world.

Historians have debated whether these speeches led to changes, such as the collapse of communism or the rise of the Arab Spring, or whether they were simply signs of the times.

Cornog said assessing the impact of a president's words is hard to quantify but that Obama's appeal could play a role in swaying Israeli public opinion, particularly by bolstering the Israeli left.

"I certainly think the bully pulpit, that ability of the president to have an audience and to put forth arguments, it does mean something," he said.

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