March 19, 2013 1:00 pm
President Barack Obama will face a sceptical audience when he tries to take his political charm offensive directly to the Israeli people this week with a message directed at their security fears and Israel’s history.
After several weeks of trying to go over the heads of congressional leaders and appeal directly to American voters about budget issues, Mr Obama will adopt something of a similar approach in Jerusalem as he seeks to reintroduce himself to the Israeli public.
After his early attempt as president to reach out to Arab public opinion, the political calculation of the White House is that if Mr Obama can achieve a closer rapport with Israeli voters, he will have more leverage over prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu when it comes to difficult decisions about Iran or the Israel-Palestine peace process.
But Mr Obama, who will visit Israel, the West Bank and Jordan, faces an uphill task winning over an Israeli electorate that is doubtful about his intentions and has so far shown little enthusiasm for his visit.
“The perception was that co-operation between Israel and the US on security issues was very intensive, but he obviously hasn’t really addressed the Israeli public the way he did the Arab Muslim public,” says Shlomo Avineri, professor of politics at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. “This is why he will address Israelis and create an atmosphere of trust, which he didn’t have until now.”
Mr Obama and Mr Netanyahu are both likely to make great efforts to be seen on good terms following their sometimes fractious relationship in the president’s first term. But Mr Obama’s agenda, which does not include a visit to the Knesset, but does include a speech to Israeli students, is designed to overcome misgivings among the Israeli public about his approach to the Middle East.
At Tel Aviv airport, he will inspect a missile battery that is part of the Iron Dome missile defence system which was partly paid for by the Obama administration.
Mr Obama will also take the more unusual step of visiting the grave of Theodor Herzl, the father of Zionism, and will view the Dead Sea Scrolls at the Israel Museum which Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser, describes as “a testament to the ancient Jewish connection to Israel”.
In choosing such locations, the White House is addressing criticism it has received from some in Israel and the US that Mr Obama believes that Israel only exists because of the Holocaust and does not have a deeper historical claim in the region.
“In his Cairo speech, he did defend Israel, but bought into a narrative that Israel was only created because of the Holocaust. He is trying to establish another narrative about Israel that is about Zionism,” says Martin Indyk, former US ambassador to Israel now at the Brookings Institution. “If the balance can shift a bit in the president’s favour, then he might get a more pliable Netanyahu.”
However Mr Obama is starting from a low base in Israel, with one poll last week showing that only 10 per cent of Israelis view him favourably. At the Hebrew University on nearby Mount Scopus, students express mixed emotions about Mr Obama’s visit on Monday. “Four years ago, I felt he was anti-Israel,” says Zvi, a psychology student who declined to give his last name. “The Cairo speech is a good example.”
He says he does not like the way Mr Obama dealt with Mr Netanyahu when the Israeli prime minister visited Washington. About this week’s visit, he says: “It’s a good move to do.”
Hanan Abu Hussein, a Palestinian master’s student in art history, disavowed any interest in the visit. “He’s not coming for us – he’s coming for the Israeli people,” she says. “He’s continuing Bush’s policies.”
In the eastern Jerusalem district of Ma’ale HaZeytim, where a Jewish settlement of block-like apartments sits in the middle of the traditionally Arab neighbourhood of Ras al-Amud, both Israelis and Palestinians have low expectations for the visit.
“I don’t think anything is going to change now,” says Ahmed Ghoul, who runs a butcher shop in the area and holds US citizenship. “In America, anybody who talks about the Israeli occupation is anti-Semitic; the power of Aipac keeps it that way,” he says of the influential pro-Israel Jewish-American lobby group.Nearby, Daniela Silber, a settler pulling her minivan into the settlement’s parking garage, complains about having to drive to other parts of Jerusalem to shop because of tensions in the area. “It’s far and it’s closed, and we have a lot of children,” she says. “It’s very hostile. We cannot go by foot.” She too is sceptical about the president’s visit. “I think he doesn’t understand the real issues we have here.”