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Poll: Israelis warming up, slightly, to Obama on eve of visit

Reuters

March 19, 2013 | 8:29 am

An employee arranges an Israeli national flag next to a U.S. one at the residence of Israel's President Shimon Peres in Jerusalem, ahead of U.S. President Barack Obama's visit on March 18. Photo by REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

An employee arranges an Israeli national flag next to a U.S. one at the residence of Israel's President Shimon Peres in Jerusalem, ahead of U.S. President Barack Obama's visit on March 18. Photo by REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

Israelis are warming up to Barack Obama, but only slightly, according to a new opinion poll published on the eve of the U.S. president's visit to Israel.

Obama arrives in the Jewish state on Wednesday for the first time as president, hoping to reassure a wary Israeli public of his oft-stated commitment to its security in the face of fears that arch-enemy Iran intends to develop nuclear weapons.

The survey, conducted last week by the Israel Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University, found 36.5 percent of Jews in Israel view Obama as friendly toward their country compared with 29 percent a year ago.

A majority of the Jewish public - 51 percent - sees the president's attitude toward Israel as neutral, while 10.5 percent regard him as hostile.

However, Israel's Arab minority, which comprises 20 percent of the population, regards Obama as staunchly pro-Israel. During Obama's tenure, Israeli Arabs' Palestinian kin have seen Jewish settlements expand steadily in occupied territory and negotiations on a Palestinian state there frozen indefinitely.

Israeli Arab leaders have long seen Washington as taking Israel's side in its conflict with the Palestinians.

Obama has raised concerns among Israeli Jews with his outreach to Iran - which denies it is seeking nuclear energy for military purposes - in the early days of his first term, a testy relationship with right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a 2009 Middle East visit that skipped Israel.

The poll found that 54 percent of Israeli Jews still do not believe Obama will consider and safeguard Israel's interests. But it noted that figure topped 66 percent in the past.

During his visit, which will include the occupied West Bank and Jordan, Obama will speak directly to the Israeli public in an address to college students that aides said would focus on U.S.-Israeli security cooperation and prospects for peace.

According to the poll, it could be a tough sell: 62 percent of the Jewish public does not believe Obama can bring about a real breakthrough in peace efforts with the Palestinians.

The poll surveyed 600 people and has a margin of error of 4.5 percent.

Reporting by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Mark Heinrich

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