As Israeli officialdom completed laying out the grand red carpet of diplomatic, ceremonial and security arrangements for President Barack Obama’s arrival on Wednesday, the Israeli public was feeling lukewarm about their very important visitor, according to a new opinion poll.
The poll, conducted last week by the Israel Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University, showed only a slight warming toward the American president: 36.5 percent of Jews in Israel view Obama as friendly toward their country, compared with 29 percent a year ago.
Just over half — 51 percent —sees Obama’s attitude toward Israel as neutral, while 10.5 percent regard him as hostile.
The trip has been billed as part of Obama’s ongoing efforts to convince Israelis that he is indeed their friend. The poll indicated that the president has made some progress in that direction. Although 54 percent of Israeli Jews still do not believe Obama will safeguard Israel’s interests, it’s an improvement over the dismal 66 percent who thought that way in the past.
During his visit, Obama will speak directly to the Israeli public in an address to college students that aides said would focus on U.S.-Israeli security cooperation and prospects for peace.
According to the poll, it could be a tough sell: 62 percent of the Jewish public does not believe Obama can bring about a real breakthrough in peace efforts with the Palestinians.
The poll surveyed 600 people and has a margin of error of 4.5 percent.
Obama is not relying on his celebrated rhetorical powers alone. The visit will also be laden with symbolism said to be aimed at affirming the Jewish claim to the land of Israel.
For example, a prominent item on the itinerary is a viewing of the Israel Museum’s exhibit of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which date back to the end of Bais Sheini.
Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, said that the scrolls were “written 2,000 years ago by Jews, in Hebrew, in their homeland, the Land of Israel.”
“This is not a country that fell out of the sky after the Holocaust. This is a country that is truly rooted in the region, and it is permanent and it is legitimate,” Oren said.
In contrast to his last trip during the presidential campaign in 2008, Obama does not plan to go to the Kosel.
Some of the stops will be geared to underlining the “stronger-than-ever” security ties between the U.S. and Israel.
Obama’s first sightseeing after landing in Tel Aviv will be a nearby Iron Dome missile defense battery, in which the U.S. invested hundreds of millions of dollars. The display will also include the Magic Wand, Arrow 2 and Arrow 3 systems.
Some 250 guests, 250 VIPs and 300 journalists from Israel and around the world will attend the official welcoming ceremony at the airport midday Wednesday.
It may seem incongruous that an American president feels the need to calm Israelis’ fears about Washington’s commitment to their security at a time when officials from both countries say U.S. and Israeli interests are more inextricably linked than ever before, as The Associated Press observed.
But with the challenges from Iran and Syria looming, it is perhaps understandable that Obama would wish to mend his notoriously strained relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, and to reach out directly to the Israeli people.
American officials including Obama himself have sought to dampen any expectations of a breakthrough in the peace process, or any bold new pronouncements on Iran or Syria. Instead, they have presented the visit as a symbolic, hand-holding trip to calm Israeli jitters.
The Americans are themselves jittery about the kind of reception the president will get.
If Israelis are lukewarm about the event, many Palestinians are openly hostile. He’ll be meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, taking a helicopter to get there. The helicopter hops will limit Obama’s exposure to ordinary Palestinians, some of whom are planning protests. Palestinian protesters defaced scores of pictures of the U.S. president during scattered street protests on Monday, the AP reported.