VOICES FROM JERUSALEM: Obama: From Your Mouth to Jerusalem's Ears

A special report by Dahlia Scheindlin

Your heart would have to be made of basalt and dry ice would flow in your veins if you were not moved by Barack Obama's speech today in Cairo.

President Obama talked about seeking similarities, not differences; a world where people speak honestly, neither hiding painful truths, nor crippled by them. He viewed religion as a source of peace and reconciliation, rather than the fashionable-but-philistine view that it is the source of all evil. In the pre-Obama era, the only logical response would be a great big guffaw.

And yet he leaves little room for the torpor of defeatism. He exemplifies differences that unite. And he confronted multiple Israel-related taboos these last few weeks - proving it possible.

So what if we suspend cynicism for a brief, Tel Aviv moment, and look for the commonalities in Israel? To paraphrase: What would happen if two Jews looked for one synagogue, instead of three? And what would happen if Israelis started facing some painful truths of our own? Palestinians, of course, will need to undertake the same responsibility.

Two states. An end to settlement construction. The fate of Jerusalem. If we look, there are some noteworthy agreements about them.

A March 2009 survey for the Geneva Initiative showed that 56% of Israelis favor a two-state solution, and 32% oppose it -a robust, absolute majority. Fully half (51%) of Israelis would like to see the government reduce spending for settlements (Harry S. Truman Institute survey, March 2009).

Given this reality, Obama facing down Bibi Netanyahu on settlements caused no more pain than tearing off a band-aid; and it generated a sense that, just maybe, something's happening. Israelis like to lament that "There's no shopkeeper," in Israeli leadership; suddenly it feels like someone is taking charge.

He carefully lifted the edge of another band-aid: the America-Israel relations that have curdled from healthy to harmful for both. His Cairo speech offered steadfast parental love: "that bond is unbreakable." This turned his unceremonious termination of the "wink-nod era," into a dose of medicine for Israel's ailing diplomacy, whose bad taste will soon be lost to the benefits of honest partnership. In fact, the December 2008 Truman Institute survey showed that half of Israelis support greater American involvement; 51% support pressure on Israel to accept an agreement like the Clinton/Geneva formula.

Now that Obama has opened the path, Israelis should consider getting all that pain over with sooner rather than later.

Now is the time to start facing the most daunting of "core issues:" Jerusalem.

Search for the commonalities: More than three-quarters of Jewish Israelis (78%) believes that Jerusalem is already divided, according to a survey I conducted for Ir Amim in April 2008. 88% are suffused with passionate sentiment towards Jerusalem; 77% hardly ever visit.

Translating those conflicting realities into concessions will be tough. But remarkably, attitudes on Jerusalem are no more intransigent than they were during the "within reach" moments of the Camp David II negotiations in July 2000. Ehud Barak faced the devil of every detail on Jerusalem. In his new book, pollster and Barak adviser Stan Greenberg meticulously documents how two months prior to negotiations, two-thirds of the public rejected a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem. Yet by the final days of the ill-fated negotiations, our surveys tested a formula of Israeli sovereignty over the Armenian and Jewish quarters and the Western Wall, while "Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem would be incorporated into the Palestinian capital of Al Quds, and the Palestinians have sovereignty over Muslim and Christian quarters, and the Temple Mount."

Fully 45% of the Israeli Jewish public voted in favor of an agreement with this wording. Likewise, in 2008, the Ir Amim survey showed an absolute majority, 51%, who agreed with a statement that: "in a final status accord, Arab areas of East Jerusalem will be under Palestinian rule, Jewish areas will be under Jewish rule, the Old City will be international and open to all. It's not ideal but necessary - we must accept it." Take the holy sites out of the equation, and support rose to an indisputable 65%.

It is nine years and three devastating wars later. Israelis are bitter, weary, and hemorrhaging ideology. Yet attitudes on Jerusalem have hardly changed. In a February survey (after the Gaza war) by Dr. Colin Irwin and the civic movement "One Voice," the following options were tested:

•"Arab neighborhoods should be the capital of Palestine (future) and Israeli neighborhoods the capital of Israel" - 45% accepted this, 54% did not -- a 9-point margin

•"As the last step to a final agreement, give the Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem to Palestine" - 44% accepted, while 50% do not , a completely surmountable 6-point gap.

That's why we should view Obama's statement that Jerusalem is:

"A lasting home for Jews and Christians and Muslims and a place for all children of Abraham to mingle freely together..." as just an opening. The devil in the details may not be so fierce, and as I've written elsewhere, people may be more pragmatic than leaders. That's why we can no longer be afraid of the fleeting pain of giving up on shallow palliatives - when clinging to them is doing us harm.

Dahlia Scheindlin is an Israeli who conducts international polling, based in Tel Aviv. She is not a staff member of Ir Amim.