WORLDPOST

Israelis and Obama

11/02/2009 03:12 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

This column originally appeared in the New York Times.

Polls indicate that President Obama enjoys the support of only 6 to 10 percent of the Israeli public -- perhaps his lowest popularity in any country in the world.

According to media reports, the president's advisers are searching for ways of reassuring Israel's public of President Obama's friendship and unqualified commitment to Israel's security.

That friendship and commitment are real, President Obama's poll numbers in Israel notwithstanding. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton sought to reinforce that message during her visit to Israel. The presidential envoy George Mitchell has reportedly been asked to make similar efforts during his far more frequent visits to Jerusalem.

The White House is about to set a new record in the number of reassuring messages and video greetings sent by an American president to Israel, as well as to Jewish organizations in the United States, on this subject. Plans for a presidential visit to Jerusalem are under discussion.

Presidential aides worry that the hostility toward President Obama among Israelis can be damaging to his peace efforts. This is undoubtedly true.

But a White House campaign to ingratiate the president with Israel's public could be far more damaging, because the reason for this unprecedented Israeli hostility toward an American president is a fear that President Obama is serious about ending Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

Israelis do not oppose President Obama's peace efforts because they dislike him; they dislike him because of his peace efforts. He will regain their affection only when he abandons these efforts.

That is how Israel's government and people respond to any outside pressure for a peace agreement that demands Israel's conformity to international law and to U.N. resolutions that call for a return to the 1967 pre-conflict borders and reject unilateral changes in that border.

Like Israel's government, Israel's public never tires of proclaiming to pollsters its aspiration for peace and its support of a two-state solution. What the polls do not report is that this support depends on Israel defining the terms of that peace, its territorial dimensions, and the constraints to be placed on the sovereignty of a Palestinian state.

An American president who addresses the Arab world and promises a fair and evenhanded approach to peacemaking is immediately seen by Israelis as anti-Israel. The head of one of America's leading Jewish organizations objected to the appointment of Senator Mitchell as President Obama's peace envoy because, he said, his objectivity and evenhandedness disqualified him for this assignment.

The Israeli reaction to serious peacemaking efforts is nothing less than pathological -- the consequence of an inability to adjust to the Jewish people's reentry into history with a state of their own following 2,000 years of powerlessness and victimhood.

Former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, whose assassination by a Jewish right-wing extremist is being remembered this week in Israel, told Israelis at his inauguration in 1992 that their country is militarily powerful, and neither friendless nor at risk. They should therefore stop thinking and acting like victims.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's message that the whole world is against Israel and that Israelis are at risk of another Holocaust -- a fear he invoked repeatedly during his address in September at the United Nations General Assembly in order to discredit Judge Richard Goldstone's Gaza fact-finding report -- is unfortunately still a more comforting message for too many Israelis.

This pathology has been aided and abetted by American Jewish organizations whose agendas conform to the political and ideological views of Israel's right wing. These organizations do not reflect the views of most American Jews who voted overwhelmingly -- nearly 80 percent -- for Mr. Obama in the presidential elections.

An Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement has eluded all previous U.S. administrations not because they were unable to devise a proper formula for its achievement; everyone has known for some time now the essential features of that formula, which were proposed by President Clinton in early 2000.

Rather, the conflict continues because U.S. presidents -- and to a far greater extent, members of the U.S. Congress, who depend every two years on electoral contributions -- have accommodated a pathology that can only be cured by its defiance.

Only a U.S. president with the political courage to risk Israeli displeasure -- and criticism from that part of the pro-Israel lobby in America which reflexively supports the policies of the Israeli government of the day, no matter how deeply they offend reason or morality -- can cure this pathology.

If President Obama is serious about his promise to finally end Israel's 40-year occupation, bring about a two-state solution, assure Israel's long-range survival as a Jewish and democratic state, and protect vital U.S. national interests in the region, he will have to risk that displeasure. If he delivers on his promise, he will earn Israelis' eternal gratitude.

Henry Siegman, a former national director of the American Jewish Congress, is director of the U.S./Middle East Project.