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Middle East

Jerusalemites love Israel-friendly Obama

media President Barack Obama with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and President Shimon Peres upon his arrival at Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv Reuters/Jason Reed

US President Barack Obama yesterday arrived in Tel Aviv for his first visit to Israel and the West Bank while in office. The visit seems designed to mark a growing warmth between  the US president and Israel but also how he is viewed by the Israeli public, even if his reception among Palestinians may not be so friendly.

On touching down at Ben Gurion airport, Obama told the assembled crowds that America and Israel “must stand together, because peace must come to the Holy Land”, adding that the United States is “Israel’s strongest ally and greatest friend”.

The speech seemed to mark a break from the “New Beginning” speechhe delivered in Cairo in 2009, where it had looked like he would be more critical of Israeli policy.

Dossier: Gaza 2009

It also seemed designed to erase the memories of Republican candidate Mitt Romney’s visit to Israel in 2012.

And it seems to have been a success among Israelis.

In downtown Jerusalem, it was hard to find anyone who wasn’t happy about Obama’s visit. 

“I love Obama because he loves Israel and he supports Israel," as this taxi driver, who didn’t wish to give his name, told RFI. "I think things have changed, he comes here and he’s a different man. Because of this I love him.”

The owner of the taxi rank, giving his name only as Menashe, was one of few dissenting voices on Obama’s visit, saying that he has failed Israel when it comes to dealing with Iran, “because it will be to late - it’s already too late. The problem will become very big.”

Sitting in an electrical shop on Jerusalem’s central Jaffa Street, Kfir Nissim disagreed:

"I think he’s a good President, because he cares about Israel," he commented. "By arriving here, it’s very good for Israel.”

Despite calling for “peace in the Holy Land”, Obama never explicitly mentioned the Palestinians in his speech.

“I don’t think anyone can bring peace," commented Nissim. "It’s impossble.”

Many Israelis said they liked Obama’s message of peace with the Palestinians, even if it was unclear what this means in practice.

“I think everybody wants peace here," said Rami Shoshani, speaking in his butcher's shop in Jerusalem’s German Colony area. "We want peace. But the problem is that in Israel we have a democracy, we have a government, we can decide and it’ll be okay. But on the other side, nobody can decide.”

Obama has an opportunity to pressure both Palestinians and Israelis, which would redeem international public opinion of Israel, customer Manuel Katz added. “If he puts a good solution on the table and makes it explicit. Everybody knows what the solution will be. We’ve already been in this movie for 30 years. So we know what will be the solution at the end of the story.”

Palestinians, and some Israelis, argue that the new Israeli coalition government’s plan to continue expanding West Bank settlements could destroy what’s left of the two-state solution.

Audio report - Obama's visit 21/03/2013 - by Ruth Michaelson Listen

In a café close to Damascus Gate, in East Jerusalem, an area with a largely Palestinian population, coffee shop owner Mohammed Castro wasn’t feeling as warm towards Obama as many Israelis.

“He is not welcome here," he declared. "We don’t care because he can’t change anything. If he had a map or something to change, we would feel he is welcome. He can’t help anyone in the United States and he wants to come here to finish our problem! If Obama came here or didn’t come here, nothing can change.”

The American administration made clear prior to Obama’s visit that he is not arriving with a new peace plan. The visit may be a gesture of encouragement of renewed negotiations but it is difficult to see how this can translate into reality.

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