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Sheila B. Lalwani Headshot

Mr. President: Seize the Opportunity in the Middle East

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The breath of fresh air that President Obama promised in addressing global challenges -- specifically the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- is starting to feel musty. When Obama was elected, many buoyed with the hope that he would be a president who "got it" and speeches spoke to a leader committed to peace, security and the return to America's longstanding principles and values. It was disappointing that after Obama pledged a robust new American policy to achieve significant progress in resolving the Palestine-Israel conflict, the issue languished during his first two years.

The Obama administration brought the issue out from the woods and reinvigorated Obama's pledge to press for a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Israel is a longtime ally, and U.S. commitment to Israel's existence, security and safety is and should be non-negotiable. However, America's national interests and strategic objectives are best served by a U.S. foreign policy that is fair but, when necessary, tough on leaders from both sides.

If there is a president who could achieve peace in the Middle East, it is President Obama who came to office with the message: Elect me, and hope and change won't have to wait in line. He remains popular in the international arena and thus is well-suited to achieve a lasting peace in the Middle East. Obama produced a significant bounce in the Arab and Muslim worlds' attitudes toward America, particularly after his speeches in Ankara and Cairo, which gave people the impression that he was and was committed to the reconstruction of America's credibility with all people. Approval of America's leadership in the Middle East shot up in Egypt from a low approval rate of 6% in 2008 to 37% post Cairo.

In his Cairo speech, for example, Obama again called for a new way forward when he boldly took the lead at the United Nations in declaring: "This time, we should draw upon the teachings of tolerance that lie at the heart of three great religions that see Jerusalem's soil as sacred. This time we should reach for what's best within ourselves. If we do, when we come back here next year, we can have an agreement that will lead to a new member of the United Nations -- an independent, sovereign state of Palestine, living in peace with Israel." The president demonstrated that he is a political realist who recognizes that there can be no political peace agreement without recognition of the importance of Jerusalem to all three monotheistic faiths.

The problem is actions have not followed rhetoric, increasingly disappointing those hoping for change. Too often the Obama Administration's track record seems to differ little from Bush doctrine. Guantanamo is not closed; detainees may yet be subjected to military rather than criminal court trials. People in this part of the world were promised "new thinking" and a departure from the legacy of the past. They have not received it.

Part of the problem is a lack of perspective. Neither senior policymakers at State nor those at the National Security Council seem to be willing to pursue fresh and bold initiatives. We need fresh faces on both sides. Mahmoud Abbas is not the man who can lead the charge to peace. How can he, when he lacks the support of the majority of Palestinians? Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government could do much more to demonstrate its commitment to the process because security is at the heart of the negotiation. However, his administration is caught in its own challenges.

The blockade has devastated its infrastructure and people, and created a humanitarian and human health disaster. When actions like these are taken, radicalism emerges, which is not in the security of Israel. Further, other blunders have been made. America's demurred stance during the Gaza flotilla did little to advance peace.

While one cannot underestimate the political pressures and challenges the administration faces on Israel-Arab relations, the White House has often seemed to be following rather than leading. It is time for the Obama administration to defy skeptics and seize the opportunity to more aggressively play the role of an independent honest broker.

The president reiterated the U.S. commitment to Israel's security and urged Arab nations to match their pledges of support for the peace process with deeds that will push it forward, including "demonstrating the normalization" promised to Israel. A two-state solution that enables Jerusalem to be the capitol of both states would be welcome, but it is going to take courage to see through such a course.

The opportunity has not been lost, but it is fleeting.

Prof. John L. Esposito, author of The Future of Islam, is University Professor of Religion & International Affairs at Georgetown University and founding director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. Sheila B. Lalwani is a Research Fellow at the Center.