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Middle East

Obama's Middle East charm offensive

US President Barack Obama appears to have won over the Israeli public during his three-day "unbreakable alliance" visit. The trip signals a thaw in strained relations between the two countries.

"I love Obama, he's a great guy," said Rafiel Birdugo as he waited for Obama's convoy to pass on Hebron Road, Jerusalem on Friday afternoon. "He's strong for Israel. He's very supportive of Israel. How can Israel make it without the US?"

"We like Obama but Obama should take the bus like the rest of us instead of creating this traffic balagan (chaos) for three days," said another onlooker.

In a city gone Obama mad, it's hard to believe that a survey by the Israel Democracy Institute last week revealed that Israelis were cynical about his pending visit, and believed the US president was more pro-Palestinian than pro-Israel.

That's exactly what Obama set out to dispel this week.

Throughout his brief visit, Obama reiterated the Jewish people's connection to the land of Israel - something that was noticeably missing from his famed Cairo speech at the beginning of his first term as president in 2009.

"Here on your ancient land, let it be said for all the world to hear," Obama said at Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust Museum on Friday. "The state of Israel does not exist because of the Holocaust, but with the survival of a strong Jewish state of Israel, such a holocaust will never happen again."

Image tour

US President Barack Obama (C) stands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Israeli President Shimon Peres (R) during a wreath laying ceremony at the grave of Theodor Herzl at Mt. Herzl in Jerusalem, on March 22, 2013, on the final day of Obama's 3-day trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

Obama paid tribute to Theodor Herzl

In a PR tour heavy on symbolism, Obama visited the Dead Sea Scrolls at the Israel Museum, laid a wreath on the grave Theodor Herzl - the founder of modern Zionism who died in 1904 without realizing his dream of a Jewish homeland - and wore a kippah at one point. The president even joked about past schisms in his relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

"Now I know that in Israel's vibrant democracy, every word and gesture is carefully scrutinised," he told students during a speech at Jerusalem's convention center. "But just so you know, any drama between me and my friend Bibi over the years was just a plot to create material for Eretz Nehederet," he quipped, referring to an Israeli television drama.

The American Jewish Community Israel director Ed Rettig said Obama had redressed past errors. "I did get a sense that he succeeded in reaching out to the Israelis. I would say that this trip worked very hard on the elements of ill trust on the Israeli side."

But while his laid-back and warm address was welcomed by Israelis, Dr Alon Liel from the conflict resolution and diplomacy department of Tel Aviv University said the underlying message was the need for a Palestinian state.

"There was a very strong message that Israel has the right to its own Jewish state and to be secure, but the heart of his speech was the 20 minutes in which he referred to the rights of the Palestinians. It was wrapped with a lot nice words, but it was there."

Obama met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Thursday in Ramallah. He said in advance that his goal was not to present a new peace initiative but to listen to both sides and encourage trust building. He reiterated his "deep commitment" to the creation of a Palestinian state, and described Israeli settlements as unhelpful to peace efforts. However, he stopped short of calling for a settlement construction freeze as a prerequisite to resuming peace negotiations.

About 150 people gathered in Ramallah's Al Manara Square to protest Obama's visit, but most onlookers were nonchalant about it.

Stichwort: Obama's Nahostreise überzeugt Israelis, 20. März 2013.
Protestors at Al Manara Square during Obama’s visit. Holding pictures of prisoners in Israeli jails.
Copyright: Vanessa O'Brien, DW-Mitarbeiterin, Jerusalem/Ramallah, March 20. Copyright: DW/V. O'Brien

Not everyone was happy to see Obama. Here, protestors in Ramallah hold pictures of prisoners in Israeli jails.

Palestinian pessimism

"For me, Obama's visit is kind of strange," said Mustafa Abdel Hadi, Abu Raya Rehabilitation Center chairman, in Ramallah on Thursday. "I think it will do nothing. He told the Israelis in Jerusalem that security for Israel is the most important thing."

Idrees Tariffi, 40, owner of Tariffi grocery store in Ramallah was slightly more optimistic. "I believe is it's a good step for the Palestinian people to kind of tell him about the Palestinian problems and to explain for him what's going on here in the West Bank. Like, about independence, about a Palestinian state, about prisoners. I hope the outcome will be peace."

Gazan rebels fired two Kassam rockets at the Israeli town of Sderot on Thursday, to coincide with Obama's visit to Ramallah. The previous evening Obama had pledged continued support for Israel and its Iron Dome system, which intercepts and explodes rockets before they hit their intended targets. That includes $200 million this fiscal year, and a promise to work with Congress to secure future funding. He has also directed his teams to start work on extending the US's long-term commitment to Israel's security through military assistance.

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