On the second day of his visit to Israel, President Barack Obama shifted his charm offensive directly to the Israeli public, targeting one of its softest spots: the young Israelis who in the summer of 2011 took to the streets to protest the Jewish state’s economic inequality, and who just two months ago very nearly unseated Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In a 3,000-seat auditorium in the Jerusalem Conference Center packed with students, several hundred journalists, and Israeli VIPs who had showed up four to five hours early, the U.S. commander in chief delivered a speech calling for peace in which he quoted celebrated Israeli author and peace activist David Grossman, joked about Israel’s version of SNL (Eretz Nehederet) and practiced his Hebrew. The crowd went wild, giving him several standing ovations.
Passes to the speech have been the hottest ticket in the country for weeks, and most universities chose to distribute them via lottery. Yael Sinai, head of Hebrew University’s student union told me she had forfeited her ticket to allow another student to attend—and was regretting it. “Even though we’re probably the best audience Obama could hope for here, we shouldn’t take his choice to talk with us for granted,” she said. “He is the leader of the free world, after all. It’s an historic moment for us, there’s a lot of excitement about this visit.”
Despite the buzz, the president had his work cut out for him. Most Israelis apparently don’t care much for him—at least according to what they’ve been telling pollsters. (A recent one suggests that only 10 percent of Israelis view Obama favorably.) Those sentiments may stem from a lack of trust harking back to his snub of Israel on the way to Cairo in 2009, and the subsequent settlement freeze. The “Muslim Obama” conspiracy theories have also gained something of a foothold here. But judging by the speech in Jerusalem, Obama and his staff seemed to be betting that the real question for most Israelis was whether or not the President genuinely felt for them.
Going into the speech, some were skeptical. Yannai Cohen, a computer science major at Tel Aviv University told me that he holds dual American-Israeli citizenship and had voted absentee for Mitt Romney in the last election, because he didn’t trust Obama on Israel. But he was still thrilled to have won a ticket. “In the end, he’s my president as well,” Cohen told me. “What he has to say is so incredibly important.” Moshe Reuveni, a political science major from Bar Ilan University, was also wary about Obama’s motives. Reuveni said he thought Obama was trying to charm Israel so that he’d be given him more time to deal with Iran diplomatically.
But the general mood was ecstatic. Eran Rozen, who studies physical therapy at Ben Gurion Univesity in Be’er Sheva, said: “I’m really excited; he’s such a charismatic man. I just hope he backs his words up with deeds.”
Stav Shaffir, one of the leaders of the 2011 protests and the new Knesset’s youngest member at 27, was happy about the presidential seal of approval that the speech was conferring on Israel’s younger generation, though she said she wished more people could attend. “And it’s only a speech,” she told me. “Prime Minister Netanyahu is a great speaker as well: what we need to see are actions.” But when I spoke with her after the speech, she told me she was particularly happy to see how the audience had responded. Obama had said that “political leaders will never take risks if the people do not push them to take some risks. You must create the change that you want to see.” “This,” Shaffir said, “is exactly what we’ve been trying to do for the past two years. This visit was meant to charm us all, and I hope that the President will use his new credit with us so that more substantial steps will be taken towards a peace deal, but only time will tell.”