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How Obama Can Learn to Speak Israeli

Advice to the president on his visit

The Israeli government that President Obama will encounter this week may charitably be called a unity coalition – and less charitably, a schizophrenic coalition. From Tzippi Livni on the left, responsible for negotiations with the Palestinians, to former settler leader Uri Ariel on the right, the new construction minister responsible for, well, construction, this is a government deeply divided on the future of the West Bank.
Obama, though, isn’t only coming to speak to the Israeli government but also—perhaps primarily – to the Israeli public. Ever since Obama’s Cairo speech in 2009, when he cited the Holocaust – rather than the historic connection of the Jewish people to its land—as justification for Israel’s existence, Israelis have regarded him as, at best, tone-deaf to their sensibilities. The Holocaust may help explain why Israelis fight with such determination to protect their country, but it doesn’t explain why Israel exists.
Now Obama will try to mend that mistake with a series of gestures. He will lay a wreath at the grave of the founder of modern Zionism, Theodore Herzl. And he will visit The Israel Museum’s exhibit of the Dead Sea Scrolls, honoring Israel’s ancient rootedness. Those gestures will resonate widely among Israelis.
But Obama’s Israel problem goes deeper than misunderstandings over history. Though Israelis of course realize that Obama isn’t to blame for the radicalization of Egypt or the implosion of Syria, they do blame him for his failure to project American power and a coherent Middle East policy. Nor do Israelis, according to polls, believe that the president is serious about bombing Iranian nuclear facilities if sanctions and negotiations fail. Obama is widely seen here as naive – for Israelis, a cardinal sin.
That’s especially true regarding Obama and the Palestinians. A majority of the Israeli public has consistently told pollsters that it supports a two-state solution in theory but believes that, in practice, a Palestinian state will continue the war against Israel. Few here take seriously the notion that Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas could make peace with Israel even if he wanted to – that he could offer the necessary concessions on the “right of return” and survive.
While Yasser Arafat was the Palestinian leader who never intended to make peace, Abbas is the leader who is always on the verge of an agreement which somehow never happens. And with the Palestinian national movement divided between two authorities, the likelihood of a solution is more remote than ever.
If Obama presents a "yes we can" approach to peace, Israelis will tune him out. Nor will they be especially receptive to a warning about the threat of occupation to the Israeli soul and to the future of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state—not because Israelis disagree with that, but because they do agree yet see no safe way to end the occupation. That’s one reason why the Israeli documentary film, The Gatekeepers—which features devastating critiques of the occupation by six former heads of the Shin Bet security service—has enjoyed little of the popularity here that it has abroad. Israelis listen to those critiques and generally nod, but then ask themselves, So what’s the alternative?
Still, for all this wariness, there is a way that Obama could be heard here – and that is to separate the issue of peace from the issue of settlements.
Many Israelis would be receptive to a message from Obama that went something like this: I understand that this is hardly an opportune moment to expect Israelis to take dangerous risks for an elusive peace. The instability around Israel’s borders has little to do with Israel itself, but threatens its security and undermines the prospects of a stable peace. Tragically, we are unlikely to get closer to an agreement anytime soon.
Yet the current stalemate doesn’t absolve either side from the need to refrain from actions that could preclude an eventual peace. On the Palestinian side, that means avoiding unilateral actions like declaring statehood at the U.N. rather than aiming for a negotiated agreement, the only hope for genuine Palestinian sovereignty. And on the Israeli side, that means avoiding settlement expansion, which will make it ever harder to separate Palestinians and Israelis into two viable states.
That is a nuanced argument likely to penetrate Israeli skepticism. Settlement building is hardly popular these days. In one recent poll, over 80 percent of Israelis said they want government resources diverted from the settlements to social and educational spending.
And what of Israel’s schizophrenic government? My sense is that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu understands that, as Israel approaches the moment of decision on the Iranian nuclear program, settlement-building is not in the country’s best interests. That’s one reason why he initially tried to keep out the pro-settlement party, Jewish Home, from his coalition.
Public support for another settlement freeze—Netanyahu imposed a 10-month freeze three years ago—could help the prime minister overcome opposition within his coalition and his own party. A freeze could force the Jewish Home to quit the coalition (the Labor Party might well join in its place), or else split into two factions, one of which would remain in government, despite a freeze.
Creating the conditions for another settlement freeze also requires that Obama overcome his Netanyahu problem, and begin seeing him as an ally. As much as Obama is hoping to speak directly to the Israeli public, the public will be watching to see how Obama speaks to its prime minister.
First published in The New Republic

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