Despite public row, Israelis' view of Obama improves

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 22, 2010 

JERUSALEM — After last week's public row with Washington over Israel's decision to build new Jewish dwellings in disputed East Jerusalem, many Israelis are re-evaluating the relationship between the Jewish state and its number one foreign ally.

Surprisingly, President Barack Obama's popularity in Israel is on the rise, and the harsh criticism of Israel's actions by his top aides — as an "insult" and "slap in the face" during a visit by Vice President Joe Biden — may have strengthened the trend.

A new poll published in Haaretz, the left-of-center Hebrew daily newspaper, found that 69 percent of Israelis think that Obama's treatment of Israel is "friendly and fair," a sea change from a similar poll last June in The Jerusalem Post, a right-of-center English daily, which found that only 6 percent of Israelis saw Obama as "pro-Israel."

To judge from random interviews at Jerusalem's Mahne Yehuda outdoor market, the new poll tapped a genuine shift in sentiment,

Roni Richtman, a 21-year-old student at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, told McClatchy he appreciated the "firm but understanding" manner in which the Americans handled the dispute.

"There was a fear here that Obama would be radical. He proved this week that although he doesn't agree with Netanyahu he still respects us and sees our view," Richtman said. Had Biden left the country entirely or issued a stronger condemnation Israelis would have felt "like small children being scolded," he said.

"We are a small country with a big ego. We are used to pro-Israeli American administrations. I think Obama did very well and gained our trust," he said.

Sitting with his friends outside a bustling cafe, Levi Raz, 33, said Israelis' attitudes toward Obama "have changed because he isn't the bad guy everyone told us he would be." He noted that in the middle of the row, Israeli newspapers published "nice photos" of Obama. "That's a real sign you've made it in Israel," he said.

The market, or souk as it's called locally, has a history as a sounding board for the Israeli public. No Israeli elected official has campaigned in recent years without paying homage to the blue-collar workers flogging their crates of tomatoes and peppers, or won an election without walking out of the market carrying its well-known tins of olives and spices.

"You want to know what Israel thinks, and you come here," said Uri Machlis, a friend of Raz's who works in the market selling produce. "They say this place has become right-wing, but that is because all of Israel has become more right-wing."

.Sarit Tamim, 56, who was passing through the market, said she also didn't trust Obama initially, but that he had "grown to be a good guy."

"He's been good with Israel so far. He was definitely embarrassed last week, and he managed it well. I thought he even could have been a bit rougher with Netanyahu."

At the same time, polls show that the Israeli public backs Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's controversial settlement expansion. Netanyahu is in Washington this week to address the biggest U.S. pro-Israel lobby, and he'll see Obama on Tuesday. Many Israelis are sure that relations soon will return to business as usual.

According to Raz, "We came out on top with the Americans. In the end, very little has changed and we are still 'friends.' "

Yet in editorials and columns over the weekend, Israeli columnists seemed to agree that Netanyahu, in an attempt to appease the Americans after the public dispute with Obama, was trading concessions regarding the Palestinians for U.S. support on thwarting Iran's nuclear ambitions.

The threat of a nuclear Iran has rated as a top concern for Israelis in every opinion poll conducted this year, a fact that Raz calls "basic" to the Israeli mentality with the Americans.

"It's OK if we make some basic sacrifices with the Palestinians because they aren't the most immediate threat now; it's Iran," he said. "We need the American support on the bigger regional issues."

Netanyahu has promised several goodwill gestures toward the Palestinians in response to U.S. demands. For the first time since Israel's offensive in Gaza more than a year ago, Israel agreed to ease its restrictions on Gaza. The Israeli government also will agree to discuss "core issues" during U.S.-mediated talks with the Palestinians, set topics that it previously had refused to discuss.

Pulling her 4-year-old twins through the market, Sarah-Rivka Robek said she thought that the dispute had been blown out of proportion.

"At the end of the day, we won't stop decades of diplomatic relations over this," she said. "It was maybe a reminder that we have different agendas. But I think both sides handled it well."

Obama's image has improved even with members of the right-wing Shas religious party, which controls the Interior Ministry, where the decision was announced to build 1,600 additional housing units for Jews in East Jerusalem.

Dan Bailey and his brother, Michel, both said that they went to an Obama protest when he was first sworn in to office.

"We were afraid he would be anti-Israel and take America with him," he said. "There was a lot of chatter in the Hebrew press about him being a Muslim and maybe even — God forbid — being anti-Semitic.

"But it's turned out OK, so far."

Bailey said he was proud that the Israeli government had announced the settlement building. "But I agree the timing was bad and probably could have been handled as to not embarrass Obama."

Shiri Yoav, 47, lives in the East Jerusalem settlement of Har Homa, one of the areas in which the municipality of Jerusalem has frozen talk on construction temporarily in an apparent gesture to Obama.

"I'm disappointed in Netanyahu, but I think this whole thing is temporary and it will blow over. As soon as the newspapers have focused on something else, we'll go back and build everywhere," she said. "I think Netanyahu played his role and Obama played his. In the end though, it will take a lot more than this for us to 'break up' with the Americans."

(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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