- The Washington Times - Monday, January 16, 2012

JERUSALEM — Rabbi Dov Hayun invoked the Jewish prohibition on mixing milk and meat products to describe one common view here of President Obama.

Obama is ‘parve,’ ” Mr. Hayun said, using the term for foods that belong to neither category. “With [Presidents] Clinton and Bush, you could say, ‘This is milk, this is meat.’ They had different approaches, but nobody ever doubted that they loved Israel.

“With Obama, we don’t know his Middle East program because it changes every day.”

As Mr. Obama seeks to burnish his pro-Israel credentials ahead of November’s election, most Israelis are ambivalent about the American president.

For the first time, polls show that a slight majority of Israelis view Mr. Obama as more “pro-Israel” than “pro-Palestinian.” But he has yet to create an emotional bond with the Israelis, and many still view him as a fair-weather friend.

He has clashed with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu since the two came to office in 2009. But his popularity among Israelis rose last year as his administration toughened its stance against Iran and thwarted the Palestinian effort to gain statehood recognition from the United Nations.

Many Israelis feel his early outreach to the Muslim world, symbolized in his June 2009 Cairo speech, was at the expense of the Jewish state.

Most thought his initial attempt at dialogue with Iranian leaders wasted precious time in stopping them from acquiring a nuclear weapon - seen as Israel’s top priority.

“I think at the beginning, he didn’t understand us and we didn’t understand him,” said Chana Uliel, a middle-aged woman from Jerusalem. “But he’s learned, and I do think he’s good for Israel.”

Her husband, David, a 60-year-old businessman, took a harsher view. “He’s bad for Israel and he’s bad for America,” he said. “He’s made America small in the world.”

Israeli opinions about Mr. Obama generally break along political lines.

Supporters of Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud Party and other right-wing blocs generally view Mr. Obama with suspicion. Left-wing opponents of the government are more favorable.

Right-wing voters in Israel vastly outnumber their left-wing counterparts.

Tzvika Brot, a reporter for Israel’s top newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, said Mr. Obama’s early pressure on Israel to freeze settlement construction in the West Bank hit a raw nerve.

“Even the people in the center don’t like when an American president pushes a prime minister that they elect, even if they think he’s right,” he said. “Israelis say, ‘Let us push him; don’t do that for us.’ “

There is still a fairly wide perception that Mr. Obama is either a Muslim or at least has a bias against the Jewish state that stems from his father’s Muslim heritage.

“He doesn’t love Israel because he’s half-Muslim,” said Avi Zaken, a 62-year-old cabdriver in Jerusalem. “So automatically, he sides with the Arabs.”

Yosef Elul, another cabdriver, disagreed. “Obama is honest, and I don’t think he’s against Israel,” he said, expressing hope that the president would get a second term.

“It shows that you have true democracy in America,” he added. “Even a black Muslim can become president.”

Yoel Levy, a retired 60-year-old Education Ministry officer, said the president’s middle name, Hussein, does not factor into his negative assessment. He instead cited Mr. Obama’s friendship with Palestinian-American professor Rashid Khalidi and other members of Chicago’s academic community.

“He came from an environment where Israel was not popular,” he said.

Mr. Levy, the rare Israeli who could name the Republican candidates vying for the right to challenge Mr. Obama, expressed a personal preference for Newt Gingrich. He praised the former House speaker’s description of the Palestinians as “an invented people,” which Mr. Levy said is “something that even Israelis don’t dare say.”

But he said it does not matter who wins the nomination because “all the Republican candidates are excellent for Israel.” “Except for the old guy,” he added about Ron Paul, who is 76.

Mr. Levy said Mr. Obama’s recent speech to the U.N. General Assembly, in which he cited the Jewish people’s historical connection to the land of Israel - which he did not mention in his Cairo speech - had earned him much good will.

He suggested one thing Mr. Obama could do to boost his popularity: “He should visit Israel.”

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