Obama in Israel 370.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
WASHINGTON/JERUSALEM- After nearly four years of often testy relations with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, US President Barack Obama is about to try a different tack - going over the head of Israel's prime minister and appealing directly to the Israeli people.
Obama's first presidential visit to Israel next week, while certainly including meetings with Netanyahu, will focus heavily on resetting his relationship with the country's wary public as he seeks to reassure them he is committed to their security and has their interests at heart.
All signs are that Obama hopes the strategy will give him more leverage with the right-wing Netanyahu - politically weakened by January's election in which centrists made surprising gains - to pursue a peaceful resolution with Iran and eventually address the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate.
But it will be no easy task.
Obama faces the challenge of overcoming Israeli suspicions that have lingered since his early days in office when he pressed Netanyahu for a freeze on settlement expansion and launched a short-lived outreach to Tehran, Israel's arch-foe.
On top of that, Obama - known for his cool, detached public persona - rarely comes across with the kind of "I feel your pain" diplomacy that Bill Clinton used to charm Israelis and Palestinians alike during his presidency.
Even so, some Middle East experts say Obama may be able to take advantage of an opening to build public confidence in Israel, the first foreign destination of his second term.
His visit comes at a time when US and Israeli strategic concerns seem more closely aligned than they have been in years, with the West's nuclear standoff with Iran at a critical stage and Syria's civil war seen as a threat to regional stability.
"There's no substitute for actually being there," said Dennis Ross, Obama's former Middle East adviser. "It's an opportunity for him to connect with the Israeli psyche."
But there is also the risk of a disconnect.
Many Israelis will be looking to Obama for firmer reassurance of his resolve to do what is deemed necessary, including the use of military force, to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear bomb. Iran denies such ambitions.
The US president does not appear likely, however, to go much further, despite Netanyahu's repeated calls for a stricter US "red line."
Obama, who has insisted he is not bluffing about military action against Iran if all else fails, told American Jewish leaders privately last week he saw little value in extra "chest-beating" just to sound tough, participants said.
The White House believes Israelis have yet to reach a consensus on how to confront Iran, essentially putting on hold, at least for now, Netanyahu's threats of an attack on Tehran's nuclear sites.
Obama will stress with Netanyahu the need for patience with sanctions and diplomacy, the source said. But US officials also hope a high-profile re-commitment to Israel's security can increase public pressure on Netanyahu to avoid aggravating the situation while world powers negotiate with Tehran.
Iran has become the main source of friction in the relationship between Obama and Netanyahu, which Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East negotiator, called the "most dysfunctional" he has ever seen between an American president and Israeli prime minister.
He believes a thaw is still possible, especially if Obama hits the right notes in Israel.
"He needs to say to them, 'I understand this is a tough neighborhood and you have a dark history. I'm not trivializing your fears.' This hasn't been adequately communicated by this administration," Miller said.