Mr. Obama, you're too cool
Dear Mr. President: If you want to make your ground-breaking speech in Cairo a reality rather than letting it remain mere rhetoric, you need to begin in Jerusalem.
Dear Mr. President:
The food hadn't even been served, and within minutes of my arrival at the home of American-Israeli friends this summer, my hosts began interrogating me about my decision to vote for you last November.
"How could you?" they asked, with a mixture of astonishment and displeasure.
While I was looking forward to some intellectual jousting with my hawkish friends, I was unprepared for the ambush I had stepped into. I conceded some of their points, defended you on others, and changed the subject whenever possible. I managed to walk out of their home with our friendship still intact (I think), but they continued to be incredulous in a follow-up e-mail, which spoke of their continued "disappointment" in my support of you.
Since then, I've found it increasingly difficult to fight off these kinds of verbal assaults from fellow Israel supporters in the United States, and your dismal popularity ratings in Israel prove the point.
Look, Mr. President, you're a cool operator. No one questions your high intelligence. And you remain determined, even when pushing the boulder uphill on seemingly unsolvable issues from health care reform to unemployment. But cracking the code on the Arab-Israeli conflict makes these other issues seem lightweight by comparison.
Perhaps you might want to reconsider, to invest your efforts in relatively easier tasks like finishing Iraq and containing Afghanistan, and take this part of the Middle East equation off your "to-do list" entirely. However, if push on you must, start by changing your approach to the Israelis.
No doubt, Israelis are a prickly bunch and haven't always made life easy for you - plus, it's no secret your chemistry with Bibi Netanyahu isn't great. But, if you expect them to play ball and cough up further concessions, then you need to show them the love - even, or especially, if you plan to put the squeeze on them. Yes, despite their gruff and swaggering exterior, Israelis have a fundamental insecurity that is best assuaged by a charismatic American leader demonstrating genuine warmth and friendliness (think: Bill Clinton and Yitzhak Rabin), rather than toughness, aloofness and coolness - qualities that make Israelis bolt in the opposite direction.
While there's a parallel list of steps to take with the Palestinians and the greater Arab world now that the future of the Palestinian Authority seems more precarious than ever, if you want to make your ground-breaking speech in Cairo a reality rather than letting it remain mere rhetoric, you need to begin in Jerusalem.
You won't get Israel to budge until its leadership and people truly believe you have their best interests at heart.
So while your initial strategy was not to appear to be too close to Israel or its supporters, because you felt it would make you look more evenhanded, the success of future negotiations (not to mention your reelection) calls for a change in direction. Here, then, is an instant recipe for improving your likability among Israelis and bolstering American Jewish support:
* Invite an Israeli to dinner: When they see "Mahmoud Abbas" first on the official visitors' list recently released by the White House, Israel supporters automatically look to see who on "our side" has been your guest. Why not start with Israel's ambassador to Washington, Michael Oren, a fellow Ivy League grad and distinguished historian?
* Return to red lines: Your decision to abstain for the first time in history on a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israel for its purported nuclear-weapons arsenal sent out shock waves. Getting Israel to dismantle the "Samson Option" is something no Israeli, on either side of the political fence, is going to agree to while a good portion of the world still supports the country's destruction.
* Rule out nothing with Iran: U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates' public warnings to Israel about considering the military option effectively take its biggest deterrent to an Iranian bomb off the table. You can't fault stubborn Israelis for doing whatever it takes to safeguard their people.
* Get real: Militant Islam continues to be a huge threat to the United States and Israel. Refusing to acknowledge it, and its role in the horrific attacks at Fort Hood last week by a Muslim-American army psychiatrist, constitutes a form of political correctness that further estranges Israelis, not to mention many Americans.
* Go beyond the political: Make Israelis feel that their ultimate security lies in being a high-tech/green powerhouse. Invite Shai Agassi, CEO and founder of the electrical car initiative Better Place, to the White House.
* Make plans to visit: As the ultimate follow-up to holding a Passover seder at the White House last year, make it "next year in Jerusalem," and travel up from Egypt to have a seder in Israel's capital in 2010.
Bottom line: It is the emotive component that you need to embrace. "Warm is the new cool," as Liel Leibovitz, a friend and Ph.D. in communications from your alma mater, Columbia University, said about the future of social media. If you want to get the U.S.-Israeli relationship back on track, and make American Jews feel good again about your support of Israel, which is the key issue for many of us, then no truer words could be spoken.
Marco Greenberg is chief creative officer of Thunder11, a marketing and social media boutique, based in New York City.
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