December 10, 2009 - 1:00am

U.S. President Barack Obama has a higher approval rating among Israelis than is widely believed, undercutting arguments he has lost Israeli public support for new peace efforts, a poll said on Thursday.

The poll by the Washington-based New America Foundation found that 41 percent of Israelis had a favorable rating of Obama against 37 percent who rated him unfavorably.

Despite this, 55 percent of Israelis polled said they thought Obama did not support Israel against 42 percent who said he did - a reflection of the "complexity of views" about the U.S. leader as he presses both Israel and the Palestinians to resume stalled peace talks.

"They genuinely admire and like him ... but at the same time they also want to feel that he is in their corner, and they have concerns over this," pollster Jim Gerstein said in an email message.

Gerstein said that, in contrast to widespread media reports of low Israeli public support for Obama, the poll of 1,000 Israelis showed more support and solid backing for a possible future U.S.-brokered peace deal with the Palestinians.

"Israelis believe peace is necessary, but they currently do not feel a sense of urgency to reach a final status agreement with the Palestinians," Gerstein said in his report, adding that Obama had a chance now to persuade Israelis it was time to
reach an agreement.

"There are real opportunities for the president and his team to speak directly and convincingly to the Israeli people," the report said.

The Obama administration's efforts to get Israeli and Palestinian negotiators back to the table has foundered amid disagreement over Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian lands as well as the status of Jerusalem.

The poll found that while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had a modest 48 percent approval rating, he was deemed strong on all issues related to security -- indicating potential support for any deal he might strike with the

"Netanyahu's security image translates into 59 percent support for 'any agreement Netanyahu reaches with our enemies,'" the poll report said.

The poll found that while Israelis were largely confident of U.S. backing, there was widespread fear that this support could crumble if Israel rejects a future U.S.- sponsored deal with the Palestinians.

"Ultimately, the public is evenly split (48 percent each) over whether to support or oppose the prime minister if he rejects the U.S. proposal," it said.

On Obama, the poll found Israelis with a variety of attitudes. While overall the U.S. president was rated slightly more favorably than unfavorably, "there are also a lot of doubts on whether the president understands the threats facing Israelis," the poll said.

It said 50 percent of respondents believed Obama was "weak on terrorism" while 43 percent rated him as naïve.

The poll was conducted from November 8 to 15 and had a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points


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