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On the Brink: Rough ride ahead for Obama as Palestinians, Israelis lukewarm over visit

Nasser Shiyoukhi / AP

Palestinian activists vandalize a poster of U.S. President Barack Obama in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on Monday.

TEL AVIV – Among Palestinians there is a coming president whose approach is creating quite a buzz of expectation.

With apologies to the White House, it is not Barack Obama, who is set to meet with Israeli and Palestinian leaders on a three-day Middle East visit that kicks off Wednesday.

Indeed, his or her name is not even known. What is being awaited with mounting excitement is the winner of the latest reality TV show.

Called simply "The President," it is a search among the youths of the West Bank and Gaza for a candidate with the skills and charisma to lead a people still in search of their own state.

Some of the 1,000-plus hopefuls were gathered for a recording in Bethlehem over the weekend.


It was quickly obvious that these were well-educated, serious-minded young men and women thinking serious thoughts about the Palestinian territory's many economic, social and political challenges.

An irony was quickly apparent, too.

President Obama will be visiting with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu today on his first visit to the country as president, hoping to improve his image among Israelis, nearly 40 percent of whom said in a poll they feel Obama is hostile towards Israel. NBC's Chuck Todd reports.

For many, President Obama's rise from outsider to Oval Office is an inspiration for their own ambitions.

But when it comes to helping realize their ambition for a Palestinian state, they have more or less given up on him.

"Not all Palestinians welcome Obama," said Bashar Falashat, a 26-year-old business studies graduate from Hebron. "Half see his visit as just a tourism trip. We need him to see the reality, to see how we are suffering, but most Palestinians believe that he will not change anything."

Several of the candidates think Obama's heart is with Palestine but his head is wedded to Israeli interests.

Twenty-one-year-old Akhla Salman studies psychology and social work in Jerusalem.

"I know America is the leading country for freedom and human rights, and I respect Obama because he is a good man," she said. "But between America and Israel there is a very strong relationship."

Near-zero expectations
Their near-zero expectations are being deliberately matched by the White House: Obama might be Nobel Peace Prize winner but he has no new plan to make peace between the Israelis and Palestinians.

Instead, the president will be in "listening mode" as he meets with Israeli President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday, and with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Thursday.

According to a recent poll by the Israel Democracy Institute at Tel Aviv University, a majority of the Jewish public -- 51 percent -- believes Obama's attitude toward Israel is merely neutral, while 10.5 percent regard him as hostile.

Meanwhile, Israel's Arab minority sees Obama as being very much pro-Israel.

On the face of it, Obama's more passive stance ahead of the visit is good news for Aviela Dietch, a mother of three and someone with perhaps as little trust in Obama as in her Palestinian neighbors.

Lior Mizrahi / Pool via Reuters, file

An Israeli border police officer stands in front of a truck lifting a structure during its removal from the Migron outpost near the West Bank city of Ramallah on September 5, 2012.

"I don't find that it is his place to tell us what to do here," she said.

Born in Milwaukee, Dietch is one of the three hundred thousand Jews who have made homes on the West Bank – land seized by Israeli forces in the 1967 war and occupied ever since.

These settlements, illegal under international law, are widely seen as the biggest obstacle to a peace deal. They are eating up territory earmarked for a Palestinian state.

Dietch lived in a hilltop community called Migron, unusual because it was deemed illegal even under Israeli law. Last autumn, after years of court action, the government was forced to demolish it.

"It was gut-wrenching, heart-breaking, to leave," she said as she walked past the few cabins and a small playground that still survive.

Her home now is just a few hundred yards down the hill, in another Jewish settlement.

Asked if she would be prepared to sacrifice that in the cause of peace, she replied without hesitation: "Of course not," she said. "And I don't think it would bring anybody peace. To ask us to sacrifice lives and homes we have been building up – there would be a civil war. A civil war."

The settlers are by no means representative of wider Israeli opinion but they are a big power in the newly formed Israeli coalition government.

That's one reason why Obama seems to have concluded there is no reason to waste energy and political capital on pushing along a peace process.

The highest hope is to cajole confidence-building measures out of Netanyahu: the release of some Palestinian prisoners, or perhaps progress on a temporary settlement freeze.

Indeed, in media briefings, Ben Rhodes, deputy National Security adviser, has placed the Israel-Palestinian conflict last on an agenda topped by Iran, Syria and wider regional turmoil.

'Operation Unbreakable Alliance'
These are issues which matter much more to mainstream Israel, and the best place to measure the mainstream is Tel Aviv – the beach-side city that is more Mediterranean than Middle Eastern.

In an attempt to convey what he sees as a threat to Israel's existence, Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used a cartoon to illustrate how close he says Iran is to developing a nuclear weapon. In a speech at the United Nations General Assembly he asked the world to help stop them. NBC's Andrea Mitchell reports.

"Personally, I was more moved by Bill Clinton, but Obama is totally reliable," said David Malka, a 52-year-old taxi-driver who works streets that were protected by the U.S.-funded Iron Dome missile shield during last year's conflict with Hamas.

That's a practical demonstration of the value of U.S. defense aid worth $3 billion annually, not to mention American diplomatic clout, a sort of Iron Dome that deflects unfriendly fire at the United Nations.

"He is a hundred percent committed to Israel's security and on Iran; if the moment comes, the U.S. has proved in the past that they help when we need help."

As for Iran, Israel and the U.S. are clearly working on different timetables. Obama told Israeli TV last week he believes Tehran is a year away of nuclear weapons; Netanyahu's "red line" is this summer.

The two leaders have notoriously cool relations -- and this visit is Obama's first to the Jewish state as president. Many here suspect Obama doesn't quite get what it is to be Israeli.

But most are as confident as the Palestinians are pessimistic, that the fifth serving president to visit Israel will be true to the trip's branding as "Operation Unbreakable Alliance."

Former NSC spokesperson Tommy Vietor and Aaron David Miller, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center, discuss what's at stake with President Barack Obama's trip to Israel and debate whether he will be able to repair a fractious relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

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