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Obama Leaves Middle East With Mixed Reviews


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. And President Obama heads home from the Middle East today after a mixed reception to his four-day visit. Mr. Obama spent much of that time in Israel trying to lay the groundwork to revive the long-stalled peace process with Palestinians. He also traveled to the West Bank and met with Jordan's King Abdullah. NPR's Scott Horsley has a recap.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: On the morning President Obama arrived in Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised him a glimpse of that country's past, present and future. They're never that far apart in Israel. In less than an hour, Obama was able to go from ancient artifacts to a modern technology expo.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Only in Israel could you see the Dead Sea Scrolls and the place where the technology onboard the Mars Rover originated at the same time.


HORSLEY: As for the future of Israel and its neighbors in the Middle East, there were few expectations this trip would change much. Haim Malka is an expert on the region from the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

HAIM MALKA: This trip is about managing Middle East problems. It's not about solving them.

HORSLEY: And there's no shortage of problems here - from the civil war in Syria to the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran. Obama said little about those issues that he hadn't said before. What was new was his approach to one of the region's oldest problems: the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Malka says Obama was very deliberate in his attempt to connect with a sometimes skeptical Israeli public.

MALKA: It's important because public opinion in Israel matters. And the prime minister and the government ministers watch public opinion polls very carefully.

HORSLEY: A poll by the Israel Democracy Institute, shortly before the president's visit found 53 percent of Israelis didn't trust Obama to look out for their country. The president tried to change that with a public speech in Jerusalem on Thursday. Just that morning, the Israeli town of Sderot came under rocket attack from Gaza. No one was injured. But Obama recalled the children he'd met in Sderot during an earlier visit, and how they went to bed in fear of just such attacks. That's why he says the U.S. has invested so heavily in Israel's missile defense system.

OBAMA: And today I want to tell you - particularly the young people - so that's there no mistake here: so long as there is a United States of America, Aht lo lavad.


OBAMA: You are not alone.

HORSLEY: Jeremy Ben-Ami of the moderate pro-Israel lobbying group J Street notes Obama stressed that commitment again and again throughout this trip.

JEREMY BEN-AMI: I call this the preemptive kiss - to make sure the Israeli people and the state of Israel really do understand that this president and the United States have their back.

HORSLEY: When Israelis believe that, Ben-Ami says, it easier for Obama to ask them to take risks for peace. And he did - saying Israel will be better off when Palestinians have their own state. Obama urged Israelis to look at the world through Palestinian eyes.

OBAMA: That's where peace begins - not just in the plans of leaders but in the hearts of people; not just in a carefully designed process, but in the daily connections, that sense of empathy that takes place among those who live together in this land, and in this sacred city of Jerusalem.

HORSLEY: Israelis' response to the visit was overwhelmingly positive. As one commentator in the Jerusalem Post quipped: If this is the way the country greeted Obama, what's left to greet the Messiah? But support in Israel came at a price with the Palestinians, many of whom see Obama as backpedaling from his earlier position as a neutral, honest broker, and landing more and more on the side of the Israelis. For example, where Obama once pushed for a freeze on Israeli settlements to restart negotiations, he now says settlements should not be an obstacle to direct talks. Obama and his allies are pushing back against cynics in the region who say the two-state solution is dead. A former U.S. ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk, joked this is the holy land. There's a difference between dead and dead and buried.

DUDU FISHER: (Singing in foreign language)

HORSLEY: As he tries to resurrect the peace process, Obama ran across one more example of new and old this week. Israeli cantor Dudu Fisher is famous in part for his performances on Broadway. But for Obama Fisher drew from an older songbook, singing he who makes peace in heaven will make peace on the whole world. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Amman, Jordan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.