Obama faces battle to woo Israeli public

by Geoff Dyer in Washington and John Reed, FT.com  |  published on March 21, 2013

U.S. President Obama and Israel's Prime Minister Netanyahu shake hands at a joint news conference at the Prime Minister's residence in Jerusalem

President Barack Obama will face a skeptical audience when he tries to take his political charm offensive directly to the Israeli people this week with a message directed at their security fears and Israel’s history.

After several weeks of trying to go over the heads of congressional leaders and appeal directly to American voters about budget issues, Mr Obama will adopt something of a similar approach in Jerusalem as he seeks to reintroduce himself to the Israeli public.

After his early attempt as president to reach out to Arab public opinion, the political calculation of the White House is that if Mr Obama can achieve a closer rapport with Israeli voters, he will have more leverage over prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu when it comes to difficult decisions about Iran or the Israel-Palestine peace process.

But Mr Obama, who will visit Israel, the West Bank and Jordan, faces an uphill task winning over an Israeli electorate that is doubtful about his intentions and has so far shown little enthusiasm for his visit.

“The perception was that co-operation between Israel and the US on security issues was very intensive, but he obviously hasn’t really addressed the Israeli public the way he did the Arab Muslim public,” says Shlomo Avineri, professor of politics at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. “This is why he will address Israelis and create an atmosphere of trust, which he didn’t have until now.”

Mr Obama and Mr Netanyahu are both likely to make great efforts to be seen on good terms following their sometimes fractious relationship in the president’s first term. But Mr Obama’s agenda, which does not include a visit to the Knesset, but does include a speech to Israeli students, is designed to overcome misgivings among the Israeli public about his approach to the Middle East.

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