Israelis lukewarm on Obama

In light of President Obama’s visit to Israel, residents reflect on what the trip means for the U.S.-Israel relationship, the Iranian nuclear threat, and Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.
March 20, 2013

Naomi Shahar readily admits she has been no fan of President Obama, seeing him as cool to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and not attentive enough to Israeli concerns. But she says she won’t miss live coverage of the president’s speech to Israelis on Thursday.

“He proved something by stepping up and coming over here,” said Shahar, a medical secretary. “Now I look at him differently.”

Her remarks reflected the impact planners of Obama’s trip hope it will have on ordinary Israelis, many of whom were unhappy with his failure to visit during his first term and sensed a lack of the kind of rapport established here by Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

Much of that wariness — which some of Obama’s Israeli detractors have linked to his Muslim ancestry and outreach to the Muslim world in a 2009 speech in Cairo — has stemmed from his uneasy relationship with Netanyahu, who confronted the president on U.S. policy toward Iran and his proposals to advance peace with the Palestinians.

“There was a feeling that Obama was a bit tough on Israel, that he was alienated from us and wanted to show who’s boss,” said Amnon Yaacobi, who was selling Obama souvenirs in his stationery shop. “He’s been too cold. He should show more warmth.”

As the president completes the first day of his Middle East trip, the Post’s Scott Wilson looks forward to Thursday’s meeting with Palestinian leaders. (The Fold/The Washington Post)

Niv Amiad, a retired civil servant, said that Obama’s failure to visit Israel after his Cairo speech “showed disrespect for the Israeli people” and that he should address Israel’s parliament during his visit, rather than opting for a public speech to an audience of invited university students.

A poll published last week by the Israeli newspaper Maariv offered a glimpse of the perceptions of Obama among Israelis. Only 10 percent of those surveyed said they liked him. A third said he supported Israel, 38 percent said he was hostile and 14 percent said he was indifferent.

A poll published Tuesday in the Jerusalem Post showed that 36 percent of those surveyed considered the Obama administration more pro-Palestinian than pro-Israeli. Twenty-six percent thought the opposite was true, and 26 percent viewed the administration as neutral.

The tepid support for Obama comes at a time of heightened U.S. security cooperation with Israel, which former Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak called the best of any U.S. administration in recent memory. That cooperation was highlighted upon Obama’s arrival, when he was taken to view Israel’s vaunted Iron Dome missile defense system, developed with U.S. funding.

Several people interviewed as Obama arrived Wednesday said they hoped he would push Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts. “He should press both parties: It’s about time that they signed a peace deal,” said Shlomo Azulai, a retired social security employee. “It’s important that his visit produces results.”

Dina Biton, a dance teacher, said Obama should push Netanyahu to make concessions that would enable a resumption of peace negotiations. She said that she didn’t view Obama as hostile, and that the negative popular view of the president stemmed from Netanyahu’s differences with him. When Clinton supported peace moves in the early 1990s by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, the aura of friendship was natural, she said. Rabin was assassinated in 1995.

“Obama’s opposition to the views of the Israeli government doesn’t make him hostile,” she said. “He was right about that.”

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