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POLITICS: White House

President Obama seeks to win over Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli public

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Photo - President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu participate in a joint news conference, Wednesday, March 20, 2013, at the prime minister's residence in Jerusalem. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu participate in a joint news conference, Wednesday, March 20, 2013, at the prime minister's residence in Jerusalem. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Politics,White House,Brian Hughes,Politics Digest

President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attempted to smooth over a rocky relationship on Wednesday, with the duo declaring they were on the same page on a nuclear Iran, possible chemical weapons in Syria and long-stalled Middle East peace talks.

But that was just part one of Obama first presidential trip to Israel. The larger and more difficult goal is convincing the Israeli people, who are highly skeptical of his administration, that he is committed to their cause.

Netanyahu, who all but endorsed Republican Mitt Romney in 2012's presidential election, struck a far different tone on Wednesday, saying "I am absolutely convinced that the president is determined to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons" and that Obama has affirmed "more than any other president Israel's right and duty to defend itself."

And Obama returned pleasantries, calling his Israeli counterpart "Bibi" on multiple occasions, avoiding the types of public rebukes that have marred the duo's previous talks.

However, much work remains for the president when he takes the stage for the centerpiece of his trip to the Middle East: a speech from a Jerusalem convention center Thursday aimed at young Israelis.

According to a recent Israeli poll, just 10 percent of respondents viewed the president favorably. Without improving those numbers, it will be difficult for Obama to move Netanyahu on long-stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks -- no matter how friendly the duo appeared Wednesday.

Presidents George W. Bush and Clinton both spoke to the Israeli parliament, but the Obama White House opted to go around the legislative body and take its message directly to the people.

"My main goal on this trip has been to have an opportunity to speak directly to the Israeli people at a time when obviously what was already a pretty tough neighborhood has gotten tougher," Obama said during a press conference Wednesday.

In that spirit, Obama said the United States was still investigating whether chemical weapons were deployed by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in a bloody civil war that could have enormous consequences for Israel and the rest of the Middle East.

Despite their chummy conversation Wednesday, real differences remain between Obama and Netanyahu. For example, the president favors more diplomatic avenues to persuade Iran not to build a bomb, while Netanyahu wants a firmer military commitment from the United States.

Samuel Lewis, former U.S. ambassador to Israel under Presidents Carter and Reagan, put it more bluntly.

"You have two people who both have good reason not to like each other because of each other's behavior," he said.

And Obama grew defensive when asked why the Israeli public hadn't embraced him like his two predecessors in the White House -- and whether he added to the public disillusionment by promising too much too early on in peace talks.

"My commitment was not to achieve a peace deal," Obama insisted. "What I said was I was not going to wait to start on the issue until my second term. Ultimately, this is a really hard problem."

bhughes@washingtonexaminer.com

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