Bernat Armangue Associated Press Two Israeli soldiers stand guard Tuesday in Gush Etzion in the West Bank next to a satirical poster asking President Barack Obama to release Jonathan Pollard, a Jewish American who was jailed for life in 1987 for spying for Israel.

Israelis eye Obama warily on eve of visit

Published: Wednesday, Mar. 20, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 8A
Last Modified: Wednesday, Mar. 20, 2013 - 7:50 am

JERUSALEM – Obama administration officials have made it clear that the top agenda item for the president when he arrives today is to win the hearts of the Israeli people. He has a lot of work to do.

"I don't trust him so much," Rachel Burger, 65, said Sunday between errands at a Jerusalem mall.

"Deep inside, I think, he doesn't like us," said Moshe Haim, an Iranian immigrant who drives a taxi in Tel Aviv.

"People don't get the love from Obama," said Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman, who leads the left-leaning Reform congregation Kol Haneshama and worked on a video encouraging American Israelis to support Obama's re-election last fall. "Bush and Clinton and Carter, these guys all had such a deep religious passion about this place, and Obama doesn't convey that," he added.

"He's a cool customer," said Weiman-Kelman.

Though Israeli and U.S. leaders of various political stripes insist that security, economic and intelligence cooperation between the two nations has never been closer or stronger, the personal, more emotional element of the relationship has been largely empty in the last four years.

The well-documented tensions between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tell only part of the story: Even Israelis who are harsh critics of their own leader felt snubbed when the president skipped their homeland during his 2009 Middle East trip.

Many have never gotten over the speech he made then in Cairo, where he twice referred to "Palestine" in the present rather than future tense, and insinuated that Israel was rooted in the tragedy of the Holocaust rather than ancient history.

Others are still smarting from what they saw as Obama's misguided demand to freeze construction in the West Bank territories Israel seized in 1967 which yielded no results – and what they believed was the president's too-swift abandonment of President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, a trusted ally.

So while many Israelis, like people around the world, were inspired by Obama's biography and energized by his underdog campaign in 2008, interviews with dozens of people this week suggest that the nation will greet him warily, akin to an estranged relative trying to reconnect.

The White House has sought to lower hopes for a major diplomatic initiative or breakthrough, leaving people searching for something much harder to define.

"It seems like people are looking for a leader," said Tchelet Semel, 32, who works in theater and film in Tel Aviv. "They gave up on leadership from within and they're hoping that someone will say the words and suddenly it will maybe rekindle the hope within the Israeli people."

David Grossman, a noted Israeli novelist and essayist, said Israelis are terrified and suspicious, and need Obama to "be a real friend to Israel," adding, "A friend should tell us the truth, and not what we want to hear."

"I wish he shows empathy to our anxieties; part of them are real," Grossman said. "But I wish he would not collaborate with them, with our anxieties, to the extent he will justify doing nothing."

The president will be preaching to a tough crowd. A poll published Friday in the Israeli daily newspaper Maariv found one in 10 Israelis have a "favorable" attitude toward Obama. ("Hateful" registered 17 percent, "unfavorable but not resentful," 19 percent, while a plurality – 32 percent – said they didn't like Obama but respected him.)

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