Israel turns away from Obama in drift to right

Perception that president is not doing enough against Iran blamed as candidates view Israeli sentiment as a barometer of US Jewish opinion.

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TEL AVIV // The United States president, Barack Obama, has repeatedly declared his unflinching support for the security of Israel, Washington's closest ally in the Middle East.

Israelis such as Avi Vakhnin, 50, a house painter from a suburb of Tel Aviv, are unconvinced by Mr Obama's approach towards Israel and would prefer to see him defeated by the Republican challenger, Mitt Romney.

"In the last four years, Obama hasn't shown that he is doing enough for Israel. We should try Romney now," said Mr Vakhnin, donning a paint-stained white shirt and shorts as he ate a cucumber in a fruit and vegetable shop on a midday break from work.

Israeli public opinion has shifted against Mr Obama, partly because of the Israeli government's perception that the US leader is not doing enough to stop Iran's nuclear programme and is applying too much pressure on Israel to curb settlement growth, analysts say.

Those views have not gone unnoticed by the campaigns of both Mr Obama and Mr Romney. Analysts say the candidates recognise that the views of Israeli Jews could reflect the sentiments of US Jews and the pro-Israel constituencies of evangelical Christians.

A poll released this week by Tel Aviv University and the Jerusalem-based research body, Israel Democracy Institute, showed that 57.2 per cent of Israeli Jews prefer Mr Romney to win, while 21.5 per cent back Mr Obama. In contrast, the survey also showed that 45 per cent of Israel's Arab minority preferred Mr Obama while 15 per cent opted for Mr Romney.

Yossi Alpher, an Israeli political analyst, said Israeli Jews' support for Mr Romney was "a reflection of the overall drift in Israel to the right".

The Israeli right tends to harbour hostility towards Israel's Muslim neighbours and towards Israel's Arab minority, which is predominantly Muslim.

They view Mr Obama's bid to improve US relations with Muslim countries with suspicion. For Israelis, Mr Obama's middle name, Hussein, has helped spur such distrust.

Echoing long-time speculation that Mr Obama, a practising Christian, is a Muslim, Mr Vakhnin said: "He doesn't like us, and that's also probably because he is Muslim. Isn't his name Mohammed or Mahmoud or something like that?"

Mr Vakhnin quieted down for a moment as a man came into the shop, saying afterward that the man "looked Arab" so he did not want to voice condemnation of Mr Obama near him.

Analysts say Israeli Jews' preference for Mr Romney has also been influenced by criticism about Mr Obama not having visited Israel during his presidency despite travelling to Muslim countries such as Egypt and Turkey.

The US and Israeli media has also reported that Benjamin Netanyahu is rooting for Mr Romney, a close friend with whom the Israeli premier shares powerful friends, including a key US financial backer, the billionaire Sheldon Adelson.

In the meantime, Jewish voters in the US are also appearing less supportive of Mr Obama - a trend that analysts said was being manipulated by the Republican Party.

"Never in the history of US election campaigns has Israel occupied such a prominent place," said Eytan Gilboa, an expert on US-Israeli ties at Israel's Bar-Ilan university. "That's because Republicans think Obama has become vulnerable on the issue of Israel."

In 2008, Mr Obama garnered about 75 per cent of the total Jewish American vote, reflecting the tradition that most Jewish voters typically vote for Democrats.

In this campaign, polls suggest that Jewish backing for Mr Obama is waning in crucial swing states such as Ohio and Florida.

In Israel, however, that drop in support for the US president is most evident because many believe that Mr Romney would be hawkish on Iran - viewed by the Israeli government as the biggest threat to the country's security - and would put less pressure on settlement activities.

Some experts, however, say that expectation could prove false on crucial issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"History tells a different story. Whenever the United States has put sustained pressure on Israel's leaders - from the 1950s on - it has come from Republican presidents, not Democratic ones," the former head of Israel's Mossad spy agency, Efraim Halévy, wrote in The New York Times last week.

According to Mr Halévy, that includes the administration of George W Bush, Mr Obama's predecessor, officially adopting the 2003 so-called "road map" for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that included a halt to settlement activity despite Israeli opposition to the plan.

It also includes the same Bush administration putting pressure on Israel to allow Hamas to run in the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections, apparently failing to anticipate its victory, Mr Halévy said.

Israel views Hamas as a terror organisation.