Israelis Ambivalent About Obama's Visit

When Sen. Barack Obama visits Israel and the West Bank Wednesday, many observers predict the trip will be met with apathy -- or fear-- on the part of both Israelis and Palestinians.

Michael Oren, a senior fellow at the Shalem Center, an academic research institute, says that on the evening before Obama was to arrive in the country he had to search before finding any news coverage about the trip on Israeli TV. "And it was after the second commercial break," Oren said, "after everyone's already gone off to watch Israeli Idol or something."

Oren says despite the close relationship Israel has with the U.S., people don't follow the elections here.

"Except for a highly informed elite, and the media and university, Israeli is a country woefully uninformed," Oren said. "The American elections are not a huge issue here."

According to Oren, they should be.

"The differences in policy are glaring and substantive," Oren said about Obama and the other presumptive presidential candidate, Sen. John McCain. "They are ripe with ramifications not just for Israel's diplomatic future but the whole region," said Oren, who has just completed a comparative study of the two candidate's platforms. "The American presidency will have the greatest possible impact on Israel's future."

This election is challenging for Obama and McCain here, in part because of President George W. Bush's unflagging support of Israel. "It's challenging to find a president so effusive in Israeli sentiment, making Israel the prime ally of America and extolling its democracy like Bush did in his last visit," Oren said.

While both candidates signed onto Bush's plan of $30 billion in military aid to Israel, they differ on many key issues.

According to Oren, Obama appears to be "flip-flopping" on the issue of Jerusalem. At the AIPAC conference earlier this month, Obama called for an "undivided Jerusalem," a rhetoric which caused an outcry among Arab leaders. "He then backtracked and said that 'undivided' meant simply no barbed wires running through it," Oren said.

That point is not lost on those here who do follow the U.S. elections, Jews and Muslims alike.

"I don't like Obama," Abbas Borse from East Jerusalem told ABC said. "He said on television that he prefers the Israelis."

Palestinian Nisreen Mitwally, 17, is from East Jerusalem and attends an American school. "It's impossible for him to be supportive of us, because he has said he will be supportive of Israel more," she said. "So I guess it doesn't even really matter what I think about the candidates."

But many Israelis were not convinced by Obama's speech either.

"He says things just to win the Jewish vote in America," said Dvora, an Israeli who owns a shop in the French Hill. "He talks about an undivided Jerusalem but as soon as the Arabs put pressure on him, he changes his mind. This doesn't make a good impression on Israelis."

The issue of Iran is the most important one for Israelis, according to Oren. "Israel looks to America to lead the fight against those who would attack Israel and the free world," he said, adding that Israelis in general don't know all the details of the candidates' positions.

"Obama's pronouncement about talking to Iran, for people without knowing details, would lead the public when asked to say that they prefer someone leading the fight against extremism than someone who says, 'let's sit down and talk to the bad guys,'" Oren said.

Avi, an Israeli who works in security services from Jerusalem, told ABC News that he supports McCain because he will be "more reliable" in military matters. "McCain understands more about the troubles of war," he said, "and what our situation is in Israel. His experience... gives him a different view."

"Whatever you see here [in Israel], the surface prosperity, the crowded cafes, the tremendous nightlife in this country -- beneath all of that this is a very, very scared nation," Yossi Klein HaLevy, senior fellow at the Shalem Center, told ABC News.

While Obama is in favor of opening a dialogue with Iran as long as certain understandings are made, McCain has made it clear that there will be no negotiations unless very far-reaching pre-conditions are met, according to Oren. "These include not supporting terror, stop saying they will wipe Israel off the map," Oren said.

Klein HaLevi agreed that Iran is the most worrisome issue for Israelis. "On Iran so far, what we're hearing from McCain, or at least the music that we're hearing from McCain, is much more soothing to frayed Israeli sensibilities."

Edik Kaptzan, an East Asia Studies student at Hebrew University, said that he would not support peace process negotiations with Iran, which he sees as a threat to Israel. "Israelis would prefer a candidate who would make us feel more protected," he said.

"No one could get Obama to say directly that a military option was on the table," Oren said. "McCain says it."

As far as the Arab-Israeli peace process goes, both candidates have promised to be more "hands-on" than Bush, Oren said.

However, Nabil Feidy, who owns a foreign exchange shop in East Jerusalem, is not so hopeful of the results. "I have no delusions about what Obama or any other president can do to solve the Arab-Israeli problem," he said.

"However, it is a problem that only the U.S. is capable of solving, with its good relations with Israelis, with the Palestinians. They're the power of the world," he said. "We always hope that the next American president will be able to do something."

Feidy said he supports Obama. "He's young, he's energetic, and America needs change," he said, "but I have no illusions about what he can do here. We won't see peace in the next four to eight years."