Memo to Obama: Two Little Hebrew Words Make All the Difference

With the high priority Obama gives the Mideast conflict, he may do well to put his rhetorical skills on the line.

Israel's rightwing politicians have made it all but impossible for the outside observer to understand the country's true state of mind. Benjamin Netanyahu has a tendency to give the world lectures about geopolitics that it doesn't accept; Avigdor Lieberman seems to be winning his bid for most hated foreign minister in the world; and Interior Minister Eli Yishai has demonstrated his singular lack of international sensibilities by creating the deepest crisis between the U.S. and Israel in living memory. As a result Israel is nowadays perceived as boorish and completely out of touch with the international community.

This has led New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, who is certainly not unfriendly towards Israel, to advise the American administration to back off the Israel-Palestine conflict. He argues that, in the Middle East, the U.S. should not try to do other states' work for them; it is likely to fail. It should only be involved where it has a real partner.

He has now pressed this argument one step further by comparing U.S. involvement in the Israel-Palestine conflict to that in Afghanistan. In the same way as it is a huge mistake to support the cynical and corrupt Hamid Karzai, he says, there is no use of coaxing Israel and the Palestinians into a peace process. Friedman's conclusion is that Obama should adopt a "do call us, we won't call you" policy, and that Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas should contact the White House when they're actually ready to move ahead with a peace process.

While I share Friedman's ever-growing exasperation with the Netanyahu government, I believe that adopting the Afghanistan model for Israel is shortsighted. The reasons for the failure to reignite the Israel-Palestine peace process are quite different from the failure in Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, the U.S. has taken on a mission impossible: it is trying to coax a multi-ethnic Islamic tribal society into adopting a liberal democratic regime. This would be difficult even under the most favorable circumstances, but becomes well-nigh quixotic when most of the population has no sympathy for the U.S.

As opposed to that, Israel has been a stable democracy for 63 years, and it has relied on the U.S. to be its prime ally, friend and protector for most of its existence. And while its current leadership makes the country seem far away from the Free World?s values, its electorate has supported the two-state solution consistently for more than a decade.

A recent poll by the Truman institute in Jerusalem provides a very different picture of the Israeli psyche than the one suggested by its politicians' aggressive stance. A full 68 percent of Jewish Israelis and over 70 percent of all Israelis (i.e. including Israeli Arabs) continue to support the two-state solution. But when asked whether they believe it can be implemented, 31 percent answer it will never be possible, 20 percent that it will be possible only in many generations to come and 19 percent that it will be possible only in the next generation. In other words, a full 70 percent of Israelis believe that the two-state solution is currently impossible, even though the same proportion think it is the only desirable solution.

The secret behind the paradox that an electorate that overwhelmingly supports the two-state solution votes for right-wing politicians is very simple: it is fear. This is why so far only Ariel Sharon, who had enormous popular support, has been able to confront the settlers and to move out of Gaza. He could do it because Israelis blindly believed (rightly or not) that he would keep them safe, even in the heydays of the second intifada: his image was the combination of the fierce warrior and the caring shepherd.

Netanyahu does not have the same aura, and his political situation is precarious. He may have genuinely endorsed the two-state solution, but he doesn't have the means to push on with it. His main coalition partners are competing with each other for right-wing credentials. This leaves Netanyahu the possibility of teaming up with the centrist Kadima party, and to form a new center-right government with the explicit agenda of pursuing the peace process. But his own Likud party is largely composed of genuine right-wingers who do not believe in the two-state solution, and many of them may defect if Netanyahu chooses to drop his right-wing coalition partners.

Because Netanyahu is a weak leader, he needs the pretext of external pressure to move on - and in this Obama seems to be succeeding. The current crisis has created a remarkable storm: all Israelis understand that the support and friendship of the U.S. is a matter of life and death.

But here is Obama's main mistake so far: only 18 percent of Israelis believe that he is friendly towards Israel. Having a Seder at the White House has not succeeded in convincing them otherwise. Up to this point Obama has distributed carrots and sticks unequally: he has tried to reach the hearts of the Islamic world while taking a confrontational stance towards Israel.

An analysis of the poll quoted above might lead Obama to realize that he needs to address Israelis' fears. One way of doing so, as has been pointed out by many commentators, is to assure Israel of unconditional protection from the threat of a nuclear Iran. The problem is that Israelis have so far not bought into the reassurances received by Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden; nor have they bought into Obama's repeated assurances that U.S. friendship for Israelis is unshakeable.

While Netanyahu needs pressure from the U.S. to convince his electorate that he has no choice but to cooperate, Obama must, at the same time, persuade Israelis of his friendship, and in this matter he should take his cues from his predecessor Bill Clinton. At Yitzhak Rabin's funeral, Clinton reached the hearts of almost all Israelis by ending his speech with the Hebrew words Shalom Chaver, "goodbye, friend."

Obama must reach out to Israelis directly; not through negotiating with the government and not through Biden. Since Anwar Sadat's historic visit to Israel, it has turned out that only by coming to Israel can leaders have a true impact on its state of mind. Given the high priority that Obama is giving the Middle East conflict, he may find it worth the while to put on the line his considerable rhetorical skills and charm in person, and in Israel. Chances are high he will also persuade Israelis there is hope we can believe in.