Wish For Obama Trip, Ignite Stalled Peace Talks

President Obama goes to Israel Wednesday — his first visit there as president. He'll also go to the West Bank. Obama's relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seems shaky but many say he can nudge Israel in the direction its politicians fear to go.

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President Obama lands in Israel tomorrow for his first visit to that key American ally as president. He'll also visit sites in the West Bank. The White House has tried to keep expectations low for this visit, but many Israelis are excited and have attached high hopes to Obama's trip.

NPR's Larry Abramson spoke with Israelis and Palestinians, and has this report.

LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: Ganit Chodorow's eyes light up at the mere mention of President Obama.

GANIT CHODOROW: Oh, I'm so excited, because I'd love to meet him.

ABRAMSON: Chodorow probably won't get the chance, but that doesn't dampen her enthusiasm. She's in her 60s, lives in the town of Herzliya, north of Tel Aviv, where she runs her own business.

She's one of the many voters who jumped at the chance to vote for Yair Lapid, the TV newsman turned politician, who was Israel's hope and change candidate in January's elections. High on the list of changes she'd like to see is a resumption of talks with the Palestinians.

CHODOROW: The peace process is always something important.

ABRAMSON: Many here question the president's commitment to what Israelis are calling the unbreakable alliance between the two countries. And the president's relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seems shaky at best.

But Ganit Chodorow is not bothered by that tension. She sees Obama as a friend who can nudge Israel in the direction that its politicians fear to go.

CHODOROW: You know, like somebody puts a hand on your back and he supports you but he also pushes you along? I think that Obama could do that.

ABRAMSON: And many others see Obama as a catalyst for the long-stalled peace talks.

On an early spring day, people in Tel Aviv are more focused on sunshine than politics. One man says most of these people do agree on the important things, like the peace talks.

Boaz Nol helped organize popular protests in 2011, drawing attention to social issues like the high cost of living. Now he's behind a Facebook campaign to get the president to speak directly to Israelis, not to their politicians.

BOAZ NOL: I can tell you that he will be surprised to see how much mainstream Israelis, a very, very clear majority of Israelis, want peace and willing to pay the prices for peace.

ABRAMSON: Nol was hoping the president would address a massive rally in Tel Aviv. The White House did not accept the invitation, apparently for security reasons. But Nol is still planning to stage a rally, where people could listen to a speech the president will give to Israeli college students in Jerusalem. Nol is convinced that average Israelis have a clear message, but he doesn't trust the country's leaders to deliver it.

In the occupied West Bank, expectations for the visit are pretty low. There are thousands still living in refugee camps, like the Balata camp outside of Nablus.

Brahim, a shoe salesman, has been living here since this family was uprooted by the 1948 war for Israel's independence. He shows me his ID card, which still lists an area near Tel Aviv as his permanent residence. Brahim says the economy here is a wreck, and it will only improve when the Israeli occupation ends.

BRAHIM: (Through translator) We the Palestinian people want to negotiate, we want the attention of Israel, we want the attention of Obama. We've been wanting it since he was elected the first time. But we do not see that in the foreseeable future he will deliver, or Israel will deliver.

ABRAMSON: Turns out those low expectations are shared by many Israeli settlers, who live in enclaves in the West Bank. Dani Dayan was a leader of the settlers for many years and lives in a spacious home in the settlement of Ma'ale Shomron. He says President Obama made a huge mistake in his first term by focusing on the settlements as an obstacle to peace.

DANI DYAN: The focus he put on the issue of construction, the so-called settlements, was both a moral and a political error.

ABRAMSON: Dayan believes the president has recognized that error and is now less focused on the settlements. Dayan hopes the president will deliver this message to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas when he visits Ramallah.

DYAN: That the use of the settlements as a pretext to avoid coming to the negotiating table, that is the thing that should change.

ABRAMSON: The vocabulary used by all these people should be familiar to the president. A desire for change.

Larry Abramson, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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