Tel Aviv — Barack Obama’s newfound rapport with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — and the U.S. president’s effort to speak directly with Israelis through a television interview — have succeeded in easing concerns about an escalating crisis between the two allies.
But despite the mutual complements, photo-ops and a congenial chat between Obama and Channel 2 news channel anchor Yonit Levy, Israelis are unconvinced just yet that the president has turned a new page with Israel and Netanyahu. Many even believe the détente could be temporary.
“I liked the fact that Obama said that the U.S. stands beside Israel and is committed to its security,’’ said Shimon Shem Tov, a retired official from the Israel Ports Authority who said he watched the interview. “Time will tell whether this was good development or just an act. I don’t have any confidence either way.”
Indeed, the warmth with which the Israeli leader was welcomed by the president was too dissonant with Netanyahu’s last White House visit in March to reassure Israelis. The memory is still fresh of the flare-up over building in east Jerusalem during the visit of Vice President Joe Biden, and the subsequent embarrassment of a media black out for Netanyahu in Washington.
Compared to former presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton, Israelis perceive Obama as less friendly. A minority even see him as hostile to the Jewish state.
A Tel Aviv University poll from April found that only 43 percent approved of Obama’s handling of U.S.-Israeli ties, while 48 percent said he handled the relationship poorly. Netanyahu’s approval rating on that issue was 56 percent to 33 percent.
The same survey found that some 46 percent of Israelis believe relations between the two countries have deteriorated recently. No survey has yet been released to measure whether public opinion shifted as a result of the visit.
The exclusive interview that Obama gave to Channel 2 was his first address to an Israeli medium. “President Obama completes his shift toward Israel,” declared Channel 2 news anchor Oded Eran in introducing the chat.
During the conversation, Obama acknowledged Israeli suspicions about his middle name Hussein and the outreach to the Muslim world. But it seems that he won over interviewer Levy, who found him personable and warm despite his reputation for aloofness.
“He unveiled just about every rhetorical weapon to convince the Israeli people that he’s with them — whether its mentioning his Jewish aides or mentioning Ben Gurion and [Theodore] Herzl… to lavishing complements upon Netanyahu,” she said. “Are the two going to walk together into the sunset? I can’t say. But that’s the message he wanted to convey.”
While Israelis are eager to see the rift with the U.S. in the last year healed, they realize it will take more than a photo-op, said one analyst. Progress on stopping Iran’s nuclear drive would go far to repairing relations.
“[The two leaders] really bent over backwards to make it seem like business as usual, and everyone knows that it isn’t business as usual,” said Mitchell Barak, who runs the Israeli polling firm Keevoon.
Obama was “well behaved” and a “gentleman,” said Mati, an 80-year-old Likud voter who supports territorial compromise and even external pressure on Israel, but said he was “angry” at the reception Netanyahu got last March.
The U.S. president, he said, is more humbled today than several months ago and understands the limits of the power of his office and that he can’t afford to provoke crises with Israel. “He understands that it is not enough to be president, and that there are 1,001 problems blocking his way.”
Obama signaled during the meeting that the U.S. is prepared to shift pressure on to the Palestinians to drop a longstanding objection to participating in face-to-face peace negotiations with the Netanyahu administration.
“There should be pressure on both sides. It’s good that there is a little pressure on Israel, but not too much,” said Suzanne Shviki, a retired French teacher who said that she voted for the opposition Kadima party because she doesn’t believe that Netanyahu is capable of making peace.
Shviki said that she believed that pressure from American Jewish leaders and members of the Senate prompted the shift in Obama. “He changed from one end to the other.”
Israeli commentators, however, speculated that there could be more awkwardness between Obama and the Israeli leader, who is still expected by the U.S. president to make significant gestures to the Palestinians to help prod them into direct negotiations. Beyond that, the Israeli prime minister will have to start discussing politically explosive compromises that will make some right-wing coalition partners uncomfortable.
“The first goal of the Obama-Netanyahu meeting was achieved: to erase the clouded past and demonstrate deep friendship. … But beyond the embrace, the goal was to place Netanyahu into the diplomatic funnel,” wrote Alex Fishman in Yediot Ahronot.
“The real test of the Obama-Netanyahu meeting,” Fishman continued, “will be in the fall or at the latest at the beginning of winter, around November. At that point, Israel will have to contend with an American initiative that will require it to decide one way or another. And then, in the winter, we will pay the full price of the lunch in the summer. This may prove to be the most expensive meal that Netanyahu has ever had.”