Obama in Zion

Article excerpt

Byline: Peter Beinart

The president needs to charm Israelis--but also scare them.

It's a cliche that every newly elected president takes office determined to rectify his predecessor's mistakes. It's less common for a newly reelected president to take office determined to rectify his own. But that's exactly what Barack Obama will be doing next week when he visits Israel.

In his first term, Obama spoke frequently about Israel. What he didn't do was speak frequently to Israelis. It's not just that in his first year in office Obama visited Turkey, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt while never visiting the Jewish state. In his eagerness to improve America's reputation in the Muslim world, he also gave his first formal presidential interview to the Arabic-language channel Al Arabiya. He didn't sit down for an interview with an Israeli journalist, by contrast, until July 2010. For many Israelis, who in the words of veteran Israeli diplomat Alon Pinkas had "become junkies of presidential sympathy and presidential love" during the Clinton and Bush years, Obama's inattention confirmed the right's warnings that Obama secretly disdained the Jewish state. Thus, when Obama greeted newly elected Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by demanding a settlement freeze, even some progressive-minded Israelis reacted with alarm. By August 2009, according to a Jerusalem Post poll, only 4 percent of Israeli Jews viewed Obama as more pro-Israel than pro-Palestinian whereas 51 percent believed the reverse.

Which is why next week's trip will involve, if nothing else, a lot of talking to the Israeli people. In addition to visiting Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust museum, and the graves of Theodor Herzl and Yitzhak Rabin, Obama will give a public speech in Jerusalem at which the White House has requested the presence of at least 1,000 Israelis. The idea is that by wooing ordinary Israelis first, Obama will find a more receptive audience when he unveils another initiative for Mideast peace. …