Obama looks to connect with Israeli people on his visit

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 18, 2013 

— President Barack Obama hopes to “connect with the Israeli people” when he arrives in Jerusalem on Wednesday, making his first visit in more than four years as president and facing a skeptical audience.

There are signs that Israelis are eager to see or hear him. Hundreds signed the U.S. Embassy’s Facebook page in a bid to win a seat at Obama’s speech at the Jerusalem International Convention Center. The Israeli government created a mobile application for interested parties to keep track of his events. And the robust Israeli press is feasting on every development: Will Obama bring a peace plan? Why won’t he? Would he cancel the trip if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu weren’t able to form a coalition government? What’s the significance of his dinner invitation to the first black Miss Israel?

Yet this comes as Israelis view Obama with deep suspicion. A recent Maariv/Maagar Mohot institute poll found that 38 percent of Israelis think that Obama is hostile to Israel and 14 percent think he’s indifferent to the country.

His popularity ratings are similarly dismal, and may be unprecedented for an American president. Just 10 percent of Israelis surveyed said they viewed him favorably, though another 32 percent said their attitude, while not favorable, was respectful.

For many Israelis, the die was cast in Obama’s first term, when he traveled to Egypt but not to Israel. In Cairo, he gave a speech that defended Israel, but Israelis were dismayed when he seemingly tied Israel’s founding to the Holocaust, rather than to ancient Jewish ties to the region.

“That was the start of a message that Israelis received over four years, that the president doesn’t like Israel, he doesn’t visit them,” said Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Clinton-era assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs who now directs the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution, a research center in Washington. “They got the impression that he wants to distance the U.S. from Israel in order to curry favor with the Arab world. Because of that message, which I don’t think the president had any intention of sending, the Israeli public turned against him.”

The perception persists even as the administration has boosted aid to Israel, including for the Iron Dome missile defense system.

“Obama should have a much better standing, but to the Israelis, it’s not about what you did for me lately, it’s about whether you love me,” Indyk said.

This week’s trip has been painstakingly orchestrated to reintroduce Obama to a skeptical public. Before his speech, he’ll view the Dead Sea Scrolls, which Obama adviser Ben Rhodes called a “testament to the ancient Jewish connection to Israel.” The following day, Obama will place wreaths at the grave of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern political Zionism, who wrote about a need for a Jewish homeland long before the Holocaust.

Not everyone will be moved by the images, though.

“What’s the point of coming without a big plan or announcement? I just don’t understand why he is coming now, of all times,” said Shiri Merav, a 41-year-old mother of three in Tel Aviv. “The (Hebrew) media has been hyping this trip, but from what I understand he isn’t coming with a peace plan or a big breakthrough on Iran. It feels like a maintenance visit.”

Merav said that while she was happy that Obama would see historic and cultural sites in Jerusalem, she could do with “less photo ops and more actual politicking.”

Dan Rimon, a 24-year-old student, said he was taking the week off from his studies in Jerusalem to avoid “the circus” surrounding the Obama trip. But Rimon said he was happy that Obama had singled out Israeli university students for his address in Jerusalem.

“I think Obama understands that change happens with the young generation, so it makes a lot of sense to me that he would reach out to us, of all people in Israel,” he said. “I just hope he delivers on the message.”

A better image among the Israeli public might help Obama’s icy relationship with Netanyahu, who faces his own challenges with a new coalition government that includes two rivals.

“Netanyahu reads the polls,” said Aaron David Miller, a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a former adviser to Democratic and Republican secretaries of state. “If the view of Obama rises with the Israeli public, it will put additional pressure on Netanyahu. Both of them recognize that they’ve got to figure out a way to manage their differences.”

Obama may use the trip to determine whether the new government – and a potentially improved relationship – offers any new opportunity for restarting long-stalled peace talks with the Palestinians, Miller said.

“I don’t believe (Obama’s) prepared to leave office without trying to put his mark on an issue that so frustrated him during his first term,” Miller said. “This is not about accomplishing anything now. This is a down payment trip.”

In Ramallah, West Bank, however, Palestinians are far less optimistic about the visit.

“He may talk about ‘change’ and ‘hope’ in America, but he is bringing neither of those things to the people of Palestine,” said Mahmoud Maloof, a 41-year-old shopkeeper in Ramallah. “For us, every day without peace is another day that we do not have a state.”

He said that many Palestinians had lost their initial optimism that Obama would focus on resolving the decades-old conflict.

“We are very, very disappointed that the promises and words he had in the beginning, when he first became president, have turned out to be empty,” he said.

Sarai Hamdeel, a 45-year-old teacher in Ramallah, said Palestinians felt as if they were an “afterthought” for Obama.

“This is not a trip to make him popular in Palestine,” she said. “It’s a trip to make him popular in Israel.”

Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent. Email: lclark@mcclatchydc.com, sfrenkel@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @lesleyclark, @sheeraf

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