Obama needs to charm skeptical Israelis in visit

Friday - 3/15/2013, 3:57pm EDT

Associated Press

JERUSALEM (AP) -- Barack Obama's vow to take his message straight to the public during his first presidential visit to Israel will be a tough sell with many Israelis who consider him naive, too soft on the nation's enemies and cool to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Overcoming this perception will require a major charm offensive and an uncompromising U.S. pledge to stand behind Israel, especially when it comes to stopping Iran's suspect nuclear program. Without a major initiative in his pocket for making peace between Israel and the Palestinians, the U.S. president will use his three-day visit, which begins on Wednesday, primarily as a means to convey a close alliance with Israel.

Rather than address Israeli leaders in parliament, as his predecessor George W. Bush did, Obama will deliver his main speech at a Jerusalem auditorium packed with university students. Tickets for Obama's speech on Thursday at a 1,000-seat convention center are much in demand, and students are entering ticket raffles across the country.

"He could have spoken to politicians or tycoons, but instead he chose to speak to us," said Lotem Cazes, a 25-year-old political science student at Ben-Gurion University in the southern city of Beersheba. "It's very moving. Even though he knows that not everyone likes him here he is still coming and trying to help."

In another effort to woo the Israeli public, Obama granted an exclusive interview with Channel 2 TV at the White House.

"What this trip allows me to do is once again to connect to the Israeli people and there is no substitute to that. The bonds between our two countries are so strong, not just shared values but shared families, shared businesses," he said in the interview, which aired Thursday. "And for me to be able to directly speak to the Israeli people and talk about our unshakable commitment to Israel, but also to talk about hopefully a shared vision of a more peaceful and prosperous future during a time when we know there is a lot of tumult in the area, it is a great opportunity for me. I'm really looking forward to it."

Throughout the interview, he referred to Netanyahu by his nickname "Bibi."

The U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv launched a Facebook competition for 20 tickets to hear the president and thousands applied. The embassy also has unveiled a life-sized cutout of the president so people can pose for photos with his likeness.

American flags are lining Israeli highways and an enthusiastic embrace of Obama would start a new chapter in his relations with Israel.

Disappointment has marked Obama's previous visits to the region. On those trips, he passed over Israel and stopped in Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, where he delivered a landmark speech aimed at improving ties with the Muslim world. The speech, in which he criticized Israeli West Bank settlements, was seen in Israel as overly appeasing to the Arabs at their expense.

"I don't feel like he's done anything special for Israel," said Oshri Biton, a 40-year-old Jerusalem merchant. "As president, he has to be a friend of Israel's. But he's a friend who pats you on the shoulder. He doesn't give you a hug."

Israelis also will be looking for reassurance from Obama over his stance on Iran's suspect nuclear program.

Israel views a nuclear armed Iran as a threat to its existence, and Netanyahu has hinted at launching a pre-emptive military strike on the Islamic Republic. Obama has said that while he prefers using diplomacy over force, all options remain on the table. Tehran denies it is seeking atomic weapons, insisting its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.

Relations during Obama's first term in office were mostly characterized by high-profile spats with Netanyahu, over peacemaking efforts with the Palestinians, Israeli settlement building in the West Bank and Iran. In public appearances together, the two have shown little personal chemistry and looked uncomfortable with one another.

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.