Israelis watching, waiting ahead of Obama-Bibi meeting

TEL AVIV (JTA) — Start worrying. Details to follow.

It’s an old joke about the Jewish telegram. And, according to Hebrew University political science professor Peter Medding, it’s also a way to understand the jitters that some Israelis have as their new prime minister heads to the United States next week for his first White House meeting with President Obama.

"What journalists and TV talking heads say one ought to take with a grain of salt. There is an underlying fundamentally strong relationship between the United States and Israel," said Medding, a specialist in Israeli politics, cautioning against a seeming air of apprehension.

That said, he added, "with a new administration come fears it will be different, the sense that there is a new king who might make different policies, and people want to know which way America is going."

A recent poll indicates Israelis tend to be fond of Barack Obama as a leader, but are specifically unsure of what to make of his overtures to Arab countries, including Iran, and his judgment on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The joint Bar-Ilan University-Anti-Defamation League survey, which was published this month, found that 60 percent of Israelis have a favorable view of Obama, with only 14 percent registering unfavorable opinions.

But only slightly more than a third of the respondents said that Obama was friendly or very friendly toward Israel — approximately half the number who did when the same question was asked of President Bush in a 2007 survey. And those surveyed were divided evenly on the question of whether or not Obama has good judgment when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian track.

Eytan Gilboa, the Bar-Ilan political science professor who helped oversee the survey, noted that young people and religious Jews, especially the fervently Orthodox, tended to be more suspicious of Obama than other Israelis, according to the poll.

"The attitudes of the young people did surprise me," said Gilboa, who speculated that their thinking reflected a hardening of the young’s political outlook, many of whom supported the nationalist Avigdor Lieberman (now foreign minister) in the recent elections.

"Perhaps young people are more cynical about politics. They want clear messages,” he said, “and are not impressed by the charisma and rhetoric of Obama."

Eti Doron, 50, who owns a toy store on a busy Tel Aviv street, told JTA that she was taken aback "with his reaching out to the Arab fundamentalist world."

"I know someone has to take off the gloves first to see what might happen," she said, "but when I see the headlines I think, ‘OK, maybe he’s not so pro-Israel.’ "

Israeli commentators and officials have been voicing concerns that Obama and Netanyahu could be heading toward a clash if they don’t find some common ground.

Obama has made it clear that a Palestinian state is a priority and that he wants to involve moderate Arab countries in the process. Netanyahu, who had a stormy relationship with the Clinton White House the last time he was prime minister, has yet to say definitively where he stands on the issue.

Recent statements from Washington — whether about Israel’s nuclear program or suggestions that progress on the Israeli-Palestinian track might be linked to progress on ending Iran’s nuclear ambitions — are also causing concern in some Israeli circles.

"I think that there is a sense of suspicion, a sense Washington is trying to create tension between Israel and the U.S., and I am very sorry about it," said Yakov Achimeir, a veteran Israeli journalist and commentator.

But he does not expect a confrontation in Obama and Netnayahu’s meeting.

"It’s not in the interest of an American president that his first meeting with the new Israeli prime minister will end with a clash,” Achimeir said. “I think there will be an exchange of views and I don’t think they will reach agreement on every point, but I think it will give both of them more time to think about each other’s views and then come with more concrete ideas."

Akiva Eldar, chief political columnist for Ha’aretz, who wrote a column about U.S. pressure tactics Monday, agrees that the change in tone from Washington has taken Israelis off-guard.

"I would say that Israelis have been spoiled in the last eight years by George W. Bush, who sent a message of ‘you can get away with anything, you can do whatever you want in Lebanon or Gaza, and you don’t have to take the president of the United States too seriously,’ " he told JTA.

Eldar thinks Israelis have yet to comprehend the nuances of recent U.S. behavior that he says spell out the new political climate, including Obama’s invitation to Jordan’s King Abdullah II as the first Middle East leader to visit the White House and the president’s upcoming trip to Egypt without plans to also visit Israel.

"Such acts would once have been considered a slap in the face, but nowadays the majority of Israelis don’t really believe in what we all call the peace process or the two-state solution or the Arab League initiative or whatever Obama believes,” Eldar said. “They believe he is naive … that either he does not know enough about the Arabs, or if he knows — and this is the worst-case scenario –  he should be considered pro-Arab and we should not take him too seriously."

The May 18 meeting may still leave as many questions as answers, warns Yehuda Ben Meir of Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies and a former deputy foreign minister.

"We may know a bit more, but maybe not,” he said, “because if there are confrontations they don’t normally come out in the open. You have to read between the lines and see whether indeed there are commonness of viewpoints or an air of friction or controversy."

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