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10.01.09

Why Israel Hates Obama

The president's approval rating has fallen to an astonishingly low 4 percent in the Holy Land. As his envoy jumpstarts peace talks, Richard Wolffe reports on Obama's plans to win the ally back.

Is Obama surrounded by self-hating Jews? That was one of the most ridiculous—and yet perversely telling—stories to emerge from the last several weeks of Israeli media coverage.

Not because the president is surrounded by Jewish aides who want to sabotage their own identity. Far from it. David Axelrod openly reveres the old Jewish deli in Chicago known as Manny’s. He has a sign in his West Wing office saying Barack Obama in Hebrew script. And Rahm Emanuel could no more hate his Jewish and Israeli ties than he could the vocabulary of the Anglo-Saxons.

It’s hard to be a mediator when one side feels you are overwhelmingly one-sided, especially when that side happens to be your strongest ally in the region.

On those terms, Axelrod and Emanuel are self-hating self-haters.

Still, one of the leading Israeli newspapers, Ha’aretz, reported that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyanhu was so paranoid that he described both Axelrod and Emanuel as “self-hating Jews.” The White House says that the Israeli government denied the story and dismisses the idea, with plenty of reason.

But what lies underneath the erroneous report is something deeper in Israeli-U.S. ties; something that complicates the vastly complex Israeli-Palestinian talks under U.S. supervision.

Benjamin Sarlin: Facebook’s Israel ProblemIt’s a matter of trust. And the Israelis don’t have it when it comes to President Obama. In the most recent Jerusalem Post poll, the number of Israelis who see Obama as pro-Israeli is just 4 percent. That’s not a typo; it was down two points since June. Fully 51 per cent say Obama is more pro-Palestinian than pro-Israeli.

In May, before the Cairo speech and before the first White House meeting between Obama and Netanyahu, the pro-Israeli number was as high as 31 percent. Not that high, but also not disastrously bad. Unless you compare Obama to Bush, who had an 88 percent pro-Israeli rating.

All of which makes George Mitchell’s task that much harder this week and for the next several years. Because it’s hard to be a mediator when one side feels you are overwhelmingly one-sided, especially when that side happens to be your strongest ally in the region.

Mitchell is working to a mid-October deadline, set by the president after the failure of his initial push for a settlement freeze. At that time, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is supposed to report to Obama on the progress since the trilateral meeting in New York.

A senior State Department official suggests there may be early breakthroughs in the region from other countries as a way to point to progress before the two sides truly engage. “There are some things we have in our hip pocket,” he said. “I would call it an indication of a willingness to be invested in the process.”

The senior official points to other positive developments—economic growth in the West Bank, and a relaxation of checkpoints near Hebron, for instance—to suggest that Mitchell isn’t looking at a completely bleak situation. “The atmospherics aren’t terrible,” he said. “This is about as good as it gets. It gives you a sense that there’s an opportunity.”

Maybe so. Or maybe both sides are stringing the Obama administration along in the hopes of starting real negotiations from a stronger point some way down the line.

Either way, the Israelis and Palestinians need to contend not just with Mitchell, the veteran of the protracted (but ultimately successful) Northern Ireland peace process. They need to deal with both Secretary of State Clinton and ultimately President Obama.

And if Clinton can reconcile to Obama, can the Israelis and Palestinians be far behind?

Richard Wolffe is Daily Beast columnist and an award-winning journalist, and senior strategist at Public Strategies. He covered the entire length of Barack Obama's presidential campaign for Newsweek magazine. His book, Renegade: The Making of a President, was published by Crown in June.