By Jeffrey Heller
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - "I love the people in this room. I love Israel. I love Israel," Donald Trump told a convention of pro-Israel lobbyists in Washington this week. But the feeling still isn't quite mutual. At least not yet.
In Israel, where distrust of Democratic President Barack Obama runs deep and conservative Benjamin Netanyahu is in his fourth term as prime minister, many voters might have been expected to prefer a Republican to take the White House.
But the prospect that the candidate could be Trump -- the real estate billionaire whose rhetoric toward ethnic minorities is widely viewed as inflammatory and whose proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States would affect nearly a fifth of Israelis -- has alarmed politicians and voters alike.
An opinion poll published last week on Israel's Walla news site showed that 23 percent of Israelis want to see Trump in the Oval Office, compared to 38 percent who prefer the Democrats' frontrunner, ex-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
In December Trump called off a visit to Israel, saying he did not want to cause difficulty for Netanyahu, after Trump's proposal to ban Muslims from the United States drew an outcry.
Netanyahu said at the time he was willing to meet any serious U.S. candidate, but strongly rejected Trump's views on Muslims, saying Israel "respects all religions and diligently guards the rights of its citizens".
Dozens of Israeli opposition lawmakers had signed a letter demanding Netanyahu call off the planned meeting. The letter's author said Trump's "racist" remarks meant plans for the prime minister to meet him were "disgracing Israel's democratic character and hurting its Muslim citizens". One signatory, an Israeli Arab lawmaker, called Trump a "neo-Nazi".
Three months later, with Trump now on course for his party's nomination, his speech on Monday to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee seemed designed to shift perceptions of him squarely back towards the Republican mainstream.
"Trump delivered a speech that could easily have been written in the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem," wrote Chemi Shalev, correspondent for Israeli newspaper Haaretz. "He went into the arena as a racist demagogue but soon came out as an ostensibly serious contender."
Trump, who normally disdains prepared remarks, read his speech out from a teleprompter. His criticism of Obama won applause from the room, and he noted that his daughter Ivanka, who converted to Judaism and married a Jewish man, will soon give birth to a "beautiful Jewish baby".
Unlike Clinton, who spoke at the gathering in a morning session on Monday, Trump made no mention of a main sticking point in a now-dormant peace process -- Jewish settlement on occupied land that Palestinians seek for a state.
Instead, he pushed all the traditional applause buttons at a high-energy event replete with swelling music, accounts of Israeli high-tech achievements and shots of waving, and sometimes kissing, audience members displayed on a big screen.
Among Trump's promises: dismantling a nuclear deal with Iran, vetoing any attempt by the United Nations to impose a peace settlement and moving the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which Israel considers its capital but almost all other countries, including the United States, do not.
Still, Trump will have a way to go to win over many in a country suspicious of populist rhetoric.
"He is a chauvinist, a violent person who hates the blacks, the Arabs - anyone who is not his color," said Orly Marx, a 55-year-old housewife from Herzliya, near Tel Aviv.
Part of Trump's difficulty in winning over Israelis is a message that has so far appeared inconsistent. Israelis are used to pouring carefully over U.S. signals toward their country for even the slightest deviation from established policies.
Israel Radio noted on Tuesday that hours before giving his pro-Israel speech, Trump said at a news conference that U.S. allies would have to pay more for American military aid.
Trump quickly backtracked, saying that Israel, which is locked in sensitive negotiations with the Obama administration over a new multi-billion-dollar 10-year military assistance package, "can help us greatly".
Clinton and Trump's Republican rivals criticized him for having said he would be "neutral" in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. American politicians from both parties portray Israel as a close ally, even if they believe it should do more to meet Palestinian demands in negotiations.
Nevertheless, the right-leaning politics of many Israeli voters means Trump could become more popular if he emerges as the Republican nominee.
Nina Gilbert, 47, an American-Israeli who works in Israel's high-tech sector, said Israelis were simply looking forward to the day Obama leaves the White House.
"As far as they are concerned, anybody who is not Obama is better," she said.
(editing by Peter Graff)