- - Wednesday, March 20, 2013

JERUSALEM — Arriving in Israel on his first official visit, President Obama pushed the restart button in an attempt to woo a largely disaffected Israeli public and lay a basis of trust on which to build compatible policies with Israel’s leadership on major issues such as Iran, Syria and a Palestinian state.

At the arrival ceremony Wednesday at Ben Gurion Airport, the president began his speech by saying in Hebrew, “Good to be here again.”

He ended by saying, “Our alliance is eternal” — a powerful statement from an American leader, especially when he used the Hebrew word “lanetsach” for “eternal.”

Despite the large-scale financial assistance he has provided Israel and the support he has provided Israeli leaders at the United Nations, Mr. Obama has been regarded by much of the Israeli public as unenthusiastic, and sometimes annoyed, by the Jewish state.

A poll published this week shows that 51 percent of the Jewish public in Israel sees him as neutral in his attitude toward Israel and the Arabs, while 10 percent see him as downright hostile. Most said they do not see him safeguarding Israel’s interests.

In his remarks Wednesday, Mr. Obama showed that he had taken under advisement past criticism about his seeming coolness, including complaints that he seems to regard Israel as a post-Holocaust refuge rather than as a state with an ancient connection to its territory. He did not mention the Holocaust at the airport.


SEE ALSO: ‘Shadow war’ between Israel, Iran rages on as Obama visits


Instead, he referred to the Jewish people’s 3,000-year-old history in the area and called today’s Israelis “the sons of Abraham and the daughters of Sarah.”

Although officials in both camps have lowered expectations, the weighty regional issues facing both countries make it unlikely that the three-day visit will pass without substantive talks.

Topping the agenda is Iran. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who last year said that the “red line” concerning Iran’s nuclear program will be reached this spring or summer, heard a different assessment last week from Mr. Obama, who put it at a year or more.

Mr. Netanyahu is expected to press Mr. Obama for reassurances that the United States will act well before Iran has turned the last screw in a nuclear device.

Mr. Obama, in turn, will want reassurances from Mr. Netanyahu that Israel will not launch a pre-emptive strike on its own.

The two leaders and their aides also will discuss possible scenarios regarding Syria. It is believed that Mr. Obama may ask for Israeli gestures of good will toward the Palestinians, but it is doubtful that he will seek a resumption at present of serious peace negotiations, given the fractured state of the Palestinian camp.

In moving down the reception line at the airport, Mr. Obama paused before two liberal ministers — Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni — and said he looks forward to working with them.

Israeli President Shimon Peres, in his airport address, said he looks forward to the creation of a prosperous and independent Palestinian state — a sentiment not shared by right-wing ministers shaking Mr. Obama’s hand.

Initial reaction to Mr. Obama’s visit from ordinary Israelis appeared positive, but most said they would reserve their opinion until his visit is over.

“I’ve been suspicious about him,” said Mary Ann Wolinksy, a Jerusalem housewife. “I’ve felt that he thinks the other side — the Arabs — have not been given a fair shot. I believe that’s not correct. The Arabs just will not accept us. But I’m glad that he came. If he sees this close up as a democratic and vibrant country, it may change some of his thinking.”

Reuven Schindler, a sociology professor at Bar-Ilan University, said that he always has regarded Mr. Obama as a friend and that his visit will allow skeptical Israelis to look at him anew.

“He was very relaxed and seemed to be enjoying himself,” Mr. Schindler said. “He comes across as being quite sincere. Israelis haven’t seen that before, face to face.”

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