Israelis fretting over U.S. policy

TEL AVIV, Israel — Israelis are worried about two more years of President Obama, and the crisis in Egypt is adding to their concerns.

Israelis already have a cool relationship with Obama, who in his first year as president called for an Israeli settlement freeze as a precondition to peace talks with the Palestinians.

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Obama’s 2009 speech in Cairo, which called for a “new beginning” between the West and the Muslim world, was also viewed with skepticism in Israel. 

Now there are questions surrounding the leadership of Egypt, Israel’s traditional ally in the Arab world, as well as U.S. policy toward the Middle East. 

While Israelis uniformly recognize that the U.S.-Israel relationship is strong on the whole, many believe that the unrest in the Arab world could lead Obama to revert to familiar themes they view as hostile to their country’s interests. 

Former Israeli ambassador to the United States Zalman Shoval said in an interview that a continued Obama effort to reach out to the Muslim world will be read in Israel as an effort to push Israeli interests to the side.

“Obama’s approach to the Middle East, [beginning with] his Cairo speech,” could be viewed as even more harmful to Israel, Shoval said. 

The pressures of the campaign trail, when candidates often make pledges or take positions they are later pressured to act upon, have already begun to reopen a split between Obama and his potential Republican rivals on the Middle East. Some believe these campaign arguments could eventually become policy differences that would be detrimental to Israel. 

Three potential 2012 GOP candidates visited the Jewish state during the first five weeks of 2011. None of the Republicans publicly criticized Obama, but their comments offered a preview of the coming GOP attacks. 

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, for example, argued that a “point of view” has emerged in Washington that “Israel is a problem.”

“People who hold this view feel themselves correct to demand from Israel an endless series of dangerous strategic concessions, even though they should have learned by now, when Israel makes such concessions, in return it is rewarded with nothing but more rocket attacks,” Barbour said in an address to the Herzliya Conference. 

The unrest in Egypt has prompted divergent responses from President Obama and the Israeli government, and policymakers in both countries have said that the outcome could strain the American-Israeli relationship.

While Obama called for a “credible transition to democracy” in Egypt after President Hosni Mubarak formally stepped down on Friday, he placed his public focus on the Egyptian people’s struggle for democracy.

“I am confident that the people of Egypt can find the answers, and do so peacefully, constructively and in the spirit of unity that has defined these last few weeks,” he said. 

Several potential Republican presidential candidates have called his response misguided. 

Israel has expressed support for Egyptian democracy, but it has voiced severe worry about the possibility of the country slipping into the hands of Islamic extremists who could undo its 1979 peace treaty with Israel.

“We will always support [the U.S.], but we have to stay grounded in reality as well,” Gabriela Shalev, a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, said at the Herzliya Conference. 

Obama’s relationship with Israel has been made difficult due to a few conflicts over the past two years. 

Aside from the call for the settlement freeze, Obama reportedly snubbed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for dinner at the White House in March 2010 after he felt Israel’s government insulted Vice President Joe Biden. 

During the 2008 campaign, Obama’s rhetoric worried Israelis, especially his remark that “Nobody’s suffering more than the Palestinian people.”

Shalev says some of the problems Israelis have with Obama go beyond his policies. 

“Obama is a different kind of president, which is a problem,” she said in an interview. “He is really aloof. He is not as warm, he is not a hugging person. I remember I saw Bill Clinton — he was speaking about [assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin, and he had tears in his eyes. And I saw [former President George W. Bush] and [former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert, you know, hugging each other. And Obama is not a hugging person.”

Shoval said that all Israeli officials should refrain from publicly picking favorites between Obama and his rivals and hope for the best. 

“If one of the parties, let’s say the Republicans, should make it a big issue, I think Israel would try not to get involved,” he said. “If the debate is kept on a reasonable level where they are competing more for who will help Israel, I will look at it from a benign eye.”