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Obama's Mideast trip: how he plans to win over the Israeli public, and why (+video)

Obama's four-day Mideast trip will include hours of meetings with Prime Minister Netanyahu, but it's his overture to the Israeli public that may help him address regional issues in the future.

By Staff writer / March 19, 2013

An Israeli flag flies on a hill near the West Bank Jewish settlement of Elazar, near Bethlehem, Sunday. President Obama is due to make his first official visit to Israel and the Palestinian Territories this week, looking to improve ties after sometimes rocky relations with both sides during his first term in office.

Ronen Zvulun/Reuters

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Washington

President Obama’s visit to Israel, the West Bank, and Jordan this week is scheduled to include more than five hours of meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as the president seeks to reduce tensions with the leader of America’s closest Middle East ally on issues ranging from Iran to peace with the Palestinians.

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But the trip, which begins Wednesday morning when Mr. Obama lands in Tel Aviv, is also about repairing relations with another audience that will be key to the president’s prospects for advancing important regional goals for his second term: the Israeli public.

“This trip is very much focused on the public diplomacy side [of relations with Israel], much less on the hard substance,” says Natan Sachs, an expert in Israeli foreign policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

The White House is calling a speech Obama will give to the Israeli public – with an audience made up largely of young people – the centerpiece of the president’s visit. “The speech,” Mr. Sachs says, “is the vehicle for the president to make his reintroduction” to a skeptical Israel.

Israelis, who never embraced Obama the way many other audiences around the world did, have never quite forgiven this American president for putting nearby Cairo on the list of sites for his first term’s signature global issues speeches – without even making a stop in Israel.

But Obama, with a speech that warms up his image among Israelis, would be able to win not just popularity points, but even critical support for US initiatives in the region, Sachs says.

“For the Israelis, it’s not, ‘What have you done for me lately,’ it’s ‘Do you love me?’ ” he says.

Further evidence that Obama is out to redefine Israelis’ impression of him comes from two of the iconic Israeli sites he will visit on his trip: the exhibit of the Dead Sea scrolls, which is seen as Obama’s recognition of the Jewish people’s roots in Israel; and the grave of Zionist visionary Theodor Herzl. Both stops are aimed at correcting the impression left from Obama’s Cairo speech that he sees Israel’s creation as the result of the Holocaust rather than a millennia-old right to ancient Jewish lands.     

Obama is “bound to get a bounce” in Israel from his public diplomacy offensive, Sachs says, adding that improved public views of Obama could make a difference down the road.

“The Israeli public will punish a prime minister who has a poor relationship with a popular American president,” he says. Thus a more popular Obama could lead to “a more pliant Netanyahu,” he adds, for example on issues related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The sense that Obama’s trip is really more about improving the climate for future initiatives than about setting down an ambitious agenda is prominent in White House pre-trip commentary.

“There are obviously going to be significant decisions in the months and years ahead about Iran, about Syria, about Israeli-Palestinian peace,” says Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications. Discussions Obama will have with Israeli and other leaders “can frame those decisions that ultimately will come down the line,” he says. “That's the way in which the president is approaching the trip.”  

The perception of tilling the ground for the future is echoed by regional analysts.

“This is a down-payment trip,” says Aaron David Miller, vice president for new initiatives at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. “If Obama’s stock goes up [as a result of the visit] in the eyes of the Israeli public, it will put additional pressure on Netanyahu.”

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