Speech Stirs Mixed Feelings in Holy Land

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Moti Milrod/AP

An ultra-Orthodox Jew watches President Obama's speech on TV screens at a shopping center in Jerusalem on June 4, 2009

In downtown Jerusalem, hardly any Israelis paused from their shopping to hear U.S. President Barack Obama's televised Cairo speech. Most will hear snippets of it tonight, rehashed and analyzed on the evening news. Obama has been portrayed favorably by the Israeli media, but lately, perhaps parroting the siege mentality of the new right-wing government, the media has attacked the White House for being too insistent on freezing Jewish settlement activity in the Palestinian territories, which the White House sees as vital to reviving peace talks.

The Israeli far right — many of whose supporters gathered yesterday outside the U.S. consulate with portraits of Obama with a Palestinian headscarf superimposed on his head, with the words "Jew-hater" written beneath — is unlikely to be swayed by Obama's balanced oratory. Even among moderate Israelis, there is a doubt about Obama's intentions. "His middle name, Hussein, keeps coming back to me. We're suspicious of him," says Yossi Danon, a high-tech expert. "Obama's entitled to change U.S. policy in the region — this is too much for Israel." (See Cairo getting ready for Obama.)

Still, most Israelis, according to political scientist Eytan Gilboa from Bar-Ilan university in Tel Aviv, will give Obama high marks for his reassurance of an "unbreakable" bond between Israel and the U.S. and for his criticism of those Muslims, such as Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who deny the Holocaust. "But Israelis will need to be convinced that they'll be living next to a Palestinian state that isn't Hamastan," says Gilboa, adding, "It seemed like Iran's nuclear issue was low on his priorities, and that's a main problem not just for Israelis but Arabs too."

Alon Pinkus, a former adviser on U.S. affairs to four Israeli foreign ministers, says that before Obama's speech, "the national mood was that the U.S. and Israel were on a collision course. But Obama made a very balanced, respectful speech. It wasn't too pro- or anti-Israeli." (See pictures of Obama in Egypt.)

The Israeli media reported that Premier Benjamin Netanyahu had been worried about Obama's speech and was peeved that an advanced copy had not been provided to his office. An insider says that on the contrary, Netanyahu realized that Obama's speech would be nothing less than a "remapping of U.S policy in the Middle East, and it is in Israel's interests to play along." He adds, "Bibi [Netanyahu] understands that the Obama locomotive is passing through, and he'd better not get left stranded at the station."

In the Palestinian territories, Obama's speech was watched more avidly. Broadcast on Gulf, Egyptian and Jordanian satellite-TV channels, Palestinians in coffee houses and restaurants were riveted by Obama's words. Fouad, a teacher, says, "I was emotionally moved by Obama's delivery. I loved his grasp of Islamic history." A Bethlehem mother, Raheeda Hamad, says she approved of Obama's message of a global partnership and of the necessity for equal education for women. At Nablus University, political scientist and Islamic scholar Abdul Sattar Qasim says, "His speech was very close to the heart. He has a way of speaking directly to the people, something other leaders have forgotten." But the scholar also injects a note of criticism: "He spoke of the violence of Hamas but didn't mention the daily violence that Israeli inflicts on us Palestinians."

See pictures of Obama in Egypt.

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