Obama tries diplomatic outreach to Israeli public

By Michael D. Shear
Friday, July 9, 2010; 8:43 AM

The American people have gotten used to the Barack Obama soft sell, the casual sit-down interview with a popular television anchor that is designed to bring the president into the country's living rooms, let him open up a bit.

The Israelis are just now finding this out.

The interview with Yonit Levi of Israel's Channel 2 offered a more relaxed view of President Obama, far removed from the formal head-of-state picture that Israelis normally see.

This approach comes at a time when the White House is seeking to reassure Jews, both in Israel and this country, that the president is fully committed to Middle East peace and to the country of Israel. Those commitments have been strained by Obama's disagreements with Israel's leaders over settlement policy, the sometimes frosty exchanges with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, the president's outreach to Muslims and his own name.

Obama confronted those issues directly in the interview, saying that he understands the roots of the concerns, but said they are not founded.

"Ironically, I've got a Chief of Staff named Rahm Israel Emanuel. My top political adviser is somebody who is a descendant of Holocaust survivors," Obama said, seated in the Diplomatic Room in the White House. "Some of it may just be the fact that my middle name is Hussein, and that creates suspicion. Some of it may have to do with the fact that I have actively reached out to the Muslim community, and I think that sometimes, particularly in the Middle East, there's the feeling of 'the friend of my enemy must be my enemy.' "

But, he added: "And the truth of the matter is, is that my outreach to the Muslim community is designed precisely to reduce the antagonism and the dangers posed by a hostile Muslim world to Israel and to the West."

The televised charm offensive comes on the heels of a well-choreographed visit by Netanyahu to the White House, where the visiting head of state was given all the bells and whistles usually afforded to close friends.

The outcome is important for Obama, politically and diplomatically.

As the president tries to broker peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians, it has become important for him to burnish his credibility in Israel, where his popularity had sunk to all-time lows. And in the United States, the notion that the relationship with Israel had grown chilly threatened support from a key constituency.

Obama told Levi that reports of any breakdown in the relationship between the two countries, and the two leaders, had been overblown. He called it an "impression that somehow there were more strains than there were."

He acknowledged that the two countries sometimes have differences, including on the contentious issue of whether Jews should be allowed to continue building settlements in contested areas. But, he said, those disagreements are "always voiced not in the spirit of trying to undermine Israel's security, but to strengthen it."

During his meeting with Obama last week, Netanyahu reserved his strongest language for Iran, saying the possibility of that nation acquiring nuclear weapons is the biggest threat in the region and around the world.

But Obama expressed confidence that Israel would not surprise its American allies with an attack on Iran.

"I think that the relationship [between] the U.S. and Israel is sufficiently strong and that neither of us try to surprise each other but we try to coordinate on issues of mutual concern," Obama said. "And that approach is one that I think Prime Minister Netanyahu is committed to."

Asked about the historic nature of his presidency -- an African American in the White House -- he said it hadn't hit him yet. And he said the thing that he misses most from his private life is anonymity.

"Taking walks," he said. "There is a value to anonymity in terms of just being able to wander around, sit on a park bench, take your kids to get ice cream without having Secret Service and helicopters over you. That part of this life, I'll never get used to. In fact, I remember when I first visited Jerusalem, I could wander through the Old City and haggle for some gifts to bring back to Michelle, or stand at the Wailing Wall, and people didn't know who I was. And that is a profound pleasure that is very hard to experience now."

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