Tel Aviv — A simple Internet search in Hebrew of the words “Obama” and “Israel” offers a clue regarding one of the president’s challenges when he visits the Jewish state next month.
After four years of strained ties in which the president criticized Israel from afar and skipped a visit while traveling to Cairo and Istanbul, Obama’s arrival next month will give him an opportunity to win over the hearts and minds of Israelis.
That’s because the failed efforts at restarting the peace process and the clashes with Netanyahu have left the president’s public approval ratings in Israel among the lowest found in any Western country that is an ally of the U.S.
“Israeli citizens are definitely more suspicious of President Obama than [they were of] President [Bill] Clinton, who they liked and still like, even though [the two presidents’] policies for the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are not that different,” said Eyal Arad, a leading Israeli political strategist.
That means, Arad said, the president is unlikely to win over Israelis with new policy proposals. Instead, the president must seek to tap into the Israeli national psyche on a deeper level.
“Until now the president has failed to touch the emotions of Israelis,” Arad continued. “He needs an emotional appeal to show Israelis he identifies with the basic emotional makeup of the Jewish state.”
Many analysts say that Obama’s failure on this front undercuts his efforts to prod the Israeli government to make concessions to the Palestinians on the peace process.
The best example of a U.S. president achieving such a level of identification with Israelis came in 1995 at the funeral of Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin, when Clinton capped his eulogy of the assassinated Israeli leader with the Hebrew words, “Shalom, Chaver” (Goodbye, Friend).
Barring such a national tragedy, Obama probably can’t hope to evoke such a cathartic connection with Israelis. But he could take a page out of a more familiar playbook of prominent foreign leaders who have addressed the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem.
The most famous visit to the parliament by a foreign dignitary was Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1977, who won over Israelis through a gesture that recognized the Jewish state’s symbol of sovereignty and government. In recent years, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and former French President Nicolas Sarkozy have delivered speeches there.
“He can speak at a university also, but the Knesset has a more official ring,” said Yossi Alpher, a former advisor to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. “Sarkozy and Merkel have spoken in the Knesset and said tough things to the Israelis. They were well received, and they don’t have half the speechmaking talents that Obama has.”
Alpher said that the president should mix strong commitments to Israeli security on threats from Iran and Syria with “serious” warnings that Israel risks its identity as a Jewish and democratic state — as well as its relationships with Western democracies — if the status quo in the West Bank continues.
Despite speculation that a three-way summit involving the president, Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was being mulled, Alpher said such a meeting would look inauthentic because of the bleak prospects for a peace treaty. A four-way meeting on regional security issues with King Abdallah of Jordan might look more favorable to Israelis.
Media speculation about the president’s itinerary is in full swing. On Tuesday, the Yediot Achronot newspaper reported that the president will lay wreaths on the graves of Theodor Herzl and Rabin. An address to 1,000 Israelis at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem and a visit to a U.S.-funded Iron Dome battery are also on the schedule, according to the newspaper.
A visit to the Israel Museum’s Shine of the Book, where the Dead Sea Scrolls are housed, would carry weighty symbolism about the link of the Jewish people to the land of Israel, observers said.
“Some interpreted President Obama’s speech in Cairo in 2009 as if Israel’s right to the land derived from the Holocaust,” said David Makovsky, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “A visit to the Shrine of the Book would reinforce that the president believes that Israel has a historic attachment to the land that goes back over two millennia.”
Meanwhile, a Facebook page started last week is aimed at convincing the president to make a peace speech at Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square. The city’s mayor, Ron Huldai, joined the campaign as well. The municipality sees the city’s liberal public ethic and history of peace activism as a natural fit for the president, said spokesman Etyan Schwartz. What’s more, such a location could fit a crowd of hundreds of thousand.
But analysts like Eyal Arad said such an appearance could backfire because the square is too associated with the left in the politicized aftermath of the Rabin assassination.
When Obama visited Israel as the Democratic nominee for president in 2008, he traveled to Sderot, where he visited a family whose house had been damaged by a rocket fired by Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip. Most Israelis have forgotten his remark there, in which, as a father of two girls, he expressed solidarity with Israeli parents in the city who have to raise their children under the threat of rockets.
Despite the strained ties, many Israelis believe that just the mere presence of Obama in the Jewish state will go a long way to winning over a public that thirsts for an embrace by world leaders. “Israelis are very fickle. As soon as somebody comes here and says, ‘I love you,’ everybody just melts,” said one Israeli government official who requested anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak on the visit. “His approval rating will go up 20 percent as soon as he lands. Israelis want to like an American president. They have an affinity for America.”
Michal, a Tel Aviv resident shopping in the Dizengoff Mall, concurred. “Even [President Jimmy] Carter, who wasn’t that well liked, succeeded. When a personality like that arrives, the atmosphere [is] inspiring. It gives hope to people. Once people see something starting, people become infected with the positive air,” she said.
At the same time, fewer Israelis may be listening to the president because of the recent focus on socioeconomic ills rather than foreign policy and national security.
“The worst problems are domestic,” said Yehuda Da’on, a worker at a Tel Aviv supermarket. “What’s on the agenda right now are economic issues — the cost of living, housing crisis and the military draft. Obama isn’t connected to that.”