Tags: Israel | Arab | peace | Obama

Israelis Wary of Obama Doublespeak on Mideast Peace

Sunday, 08 Nov 2009 09:33 PM


TEL AVIV - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be in the United States this week, and as a sign of the persistent acrimony over Mideast peace, he was only a last minute addition to meet President Barack Obama.

Ten months into the Obama administration, persistent tension with Mr. Netanyahu has eroded the president's standing among Israelis. They are giving him low grades for his initial, unsuccessful foray into Middle East peacemaking and feel slighted that he hasn't shown them as much empathy he has shown their Arab neighbors.

Though Israelis still see the United States as their most important ally and many view Mr. Obama positively, the president is nonetheless faulted by both supporters and detractors for not reaching out to the Israeli public as he publicly sparred with Mr. Netanyahu over Israel's continued expansion of settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

The criticism is reflected in two recent surveys, which suggested that among Israeli Jews, only about 6 percent of respondents see Mr. Obama's Middle East policy as "pro-Israeli."

Many Israelis say that Mr. Obama is perceived as taking a harsh tone with the Jewish state while trying to appease Arab public opinion.

Though it's not too late for him to make a gesture to win over Israeli hearts and minds, time may be running out before public opinion hardens.

"My greatest fear is that Israelis are going to think that instead of [Obama] being the shoulder we can cry on, like a big sister, we're going to feel attacked by his demands, no matter how correct they are," said Tami Shroitman, a 37-year-old urban planner who voted for the left-of-center Labor Party in the last election. "They're going to stop believing in him, and it's going to be eight more years lost."

Mr. Obama's push to restart peace talks snagged on his demand for a full halt on Israeli building in the West Bank, which provoked a rare standoff with Mr. Netanyahu and prompted the Palestinians to make a settlement freeze a condition for renewing talks.

With the gaps still wide, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton a week ago began lowering expectations on negotiations and praised what Israel is prepared to do - namely, not constructing new settlements in the West Bank, but putting no limits on construction in East Jerusalem - as an "unprecedented" concession. That comment infuriated Palestinians, who refuse to resume talks while the construction continues. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, citing the deadlock, said he would not seek another term in elections scheduled for January.

Israelis weren't necessarily impressed by Mrs. Clinton's words either, because they saw the remarks as inconsistent with previous U.S. statements.

Israeli public opinion has shifted rightward in recent years because of failed peace talks and unilateral withdrawals in Gaza and Lebanon that have resulted in increased rocket attacks on Israel and that are now perceived by many Israelis as a mistake. The previous administrations of Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton did not publicly push Israeli officials to make compromises.

Still, a Hebrew University poll from August suggests that Israelis are still looking for U.S. leadership. Fifty-nine percent said they want Mr. Obama to play either the same or stronger role in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process as he is currently. The same poll found that a 37 percent plurality of Israelis believe strong involvement by Mr. Obama will bring progress, compared with 33 percent who expect the peace efforts to fail.

Israelis recoil, however, at the idea of outsiders imposing a deal. The same poll said Israelis overwhelmingly oppose U.S. pressure to accept an Arab League peace initiative, which calls for a full withdrawal from territories occupied during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war in return for full normalization of relations with Arab states.

Mr. Obama addressed Israelis on Saturday night in a video message played at the annual memorial rally in Tel Aviv for Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, assassinated by a Jewish extremist in 1995.

In the speech, Mr. Obama paid tribute to Mr. Rabin, the key leader behind the 1993 Oslo peace accord, and pledged to keep trying to bring the Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table.

"To all who seek peace, I say tonight, you will always have a partner in the United States of America and in my administration," Mr. Obama said. "That's why we've been working aggressively for our clear goal: two states living side by side in peace and security."

Mr. Netanyahu will arrive in the U.S. on Sunday to address the three-day General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, which begins in Washington on Sunday. Mr. Obama is also scheduled to address the event, but so far no meeting has been slated between the two leaders.

Political analysts in Israel say Mr. Obama would do better to address Israelis face to face in the same way he addressed the Muslim world by delivering a speech at Cairo University.

"He isn't engaging us. He seems to be getting bad advice on how to talk to Israel," said Yossi Alpher, a former head of a Tel Aviv University think tank on security strategy and the co-editor of Bitterlemons.org, a Web site that promotes Arab-Israeli peace.

"He needs to come to the Knesset and give a prime-time speech and lay it out for Israelis. It's not that he has to come and put a rubber stamp on Israeli policies, but he has to bypass Netanyahu and has to bypass the American Jewish community and come and address us."

On Thursday, U.S. Ambassador to Israel James Cunningham acknowledged during a public appearance in Tel Aviv that "there is doubt" among Israelis about Mr. Obama's friendship, the Jerusalem Post reported.

Despite numerous pro-Israel statements by the U.S. president, they have failed to ease the discomfort among Israelis about Mr. Obama's perceived sympathy for Israel's rivals and his willingness to negotiate with Iran.

Some Israelis suggest that Mr. Obama must forcefully criticize a U.N. report that accuses both Israel and the militant Palestinian group Hamas of war crimes during the Israeli offensive in Gaza last winter.

"He needs to show Israelis that he understands our position," said Joseph Oppenheim, a 44-year-old real estate lawyer. "We need to feel like he's got our back."

Mr. Obama's dialogue with Iran is another sore spot. Israelis are deeply skeptical about the prospects for U.S. engagement in negotiations on Iran's nuclear program.

Middle East regimes interpret Mr. Obama's desire for negotiations with Tehran as a sign of weakness, said Arnon Hoffman, 47, a workplace-safety specialist. He said the fact that Mr. Obama's father was a Kenyan Muslim makes him less interested in Israel's side and less willing to sanction an Israeli attack on Iran.

"We could hit a couple of things that would hurt the Iranian nuclear program," Mr. Hoffman said. "But the U.S. is preventing us from doing what we know how to do."



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