09/20/2011 11:37 am ET | Updated Nov 20, 2011

Obama's Defining Moment on Israel

As I gaze out my airplane's window, across the runway of Munich's International Airport, I flash back to my childhood, and am reminded of what truly is at stake today for my ancestral homeland of Israel.

Early memories can leave indelible marks.  My teenage daughters, and many of their generation, will forever be influenced by the events of 9-11.  Younger Boomers found their worldviews permanently transformed by the assassinations of the sixties, of Kennedys and King.

My seminal memory is of the 1972 tragedy that transpired on another runway in Munich. The halcyon harmony of the Olympic Village was ravaged by hooded terrorists who brutally murdered eleven Israeli athletes -- nine of them on a Munich tarmac -- through a hail of gunfire and grenades, as a global television audience prayed in vain for their rescue.

The 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich were supposed to be a transcendent moment for the Jewish people: A penitent Germany symbolically renouncing its Nazi past; while a proud American Jew, Mark Spitz, set standards for swimming that were only recently surpassed by Michael Phelps.

Instead, Jews around the world were vividly reminded of the fragility of their newfound security.  And a young boy in Lexington, Kentucky began to understand what being Jewish really meant.

With a big assist to Mom and Dad, the memory of that Munich runway set into motion my development of a strong and enduring faith and a proud Jewish identification, critical while growing up in an inner notch of the Bible Belt.

Even more so, it laid the foundation for my own passionate Zionism.  The fiery helicopters filled with Israeli hostages became a vivid metaphor for the Jewish state, as it continued to suffer through decades of existential perils: from 1974's Yom Kippur War to today's Iranian nuclear threat. Munich taught that we cannot afford to sit impassively by our television sets and merely pray for a peaceful resolution.

Today, as the sanguine hope of the Arab Spring has descended into the enkindled violence of the blazing summer, Israel again faces unparalleled challenges. While Libya uncovers Gaddafi's mass Arab graves and Arab freedom fighters are gunned down by the dozen in Syria, the Arab Street in Egypt, Turkey and elsewhere in the region have erupted to protest... wait for it... Israel, specifically its government's supposed failure to apologize strongly enough for casualties resulting from its counter-terrorism efforts.

I won't use this column to re-litigate claims of Israeli alleged wrongdoing in the recent deaths of three Egyptian policemen or nine pro-Palestinian activists on Turkey's Gaza Flotilla. But not even Israel's strongest critics can proclaim with a straight face that these Israeli actions are remotely comparable to the anti-Arab violence perpetuated by the likes of Gaddafi and Assad.

Yet in the ongoing cycle of  anti-Zionist recriminations, some Arab leaders continue to scapegoat the Jewish state for their woes, whether as an effort to develop regional political influence, or as a desperate attempt to distract the fomenting masses from their own countries' corruption and impoverishment.

Now these same forces appear to be coalescing around President Mahmoud Abbas' current efforts to force a United Nations vote on Palestinian statehood.  No one expects U.N. action to produce any substantive results; a two-state solution (which I, like most Zionists, support) is only achievable through negotiation. This smells simply like another P.R. exercise: An inevitable U.S. veto of a Security Council resolution and/or a renewed effort to haul Israel before the International Criminal Court would serve the primary purpose of inflaming the Arab Street, distracting its attention from the much more pernicious oppression their brothers and sisters face in some Arab-ruled countries.

It is therefore incumbent on President Obama to take a stand.  His Administration and its envoys have failed thus far to head off a U.N. vote, so it is critical that the President get out in front and forcefully denounce the proposal for unilateral U.N. action. As he has learned too often in the domestic context, sitting back and hoping for compromise to emerge -- and allowing others to define the debate -- can too often backfire, both in policy and as public relations. Obama must clearly inform the Arab world, which he has worked so hard to court, that the United States stands behind its strongest ally in the region and will, under no circumstances, allow it to be used as the punching bag to defuse Arab anger about its own leadership.

Obama has a simple, fair, and logical message to share:  First, each party to the problem must have ownership of the solution: imposing borders unilaterally is not in the spirit of the U.N.'s mission.  And second, if Palestine merits formal global recognition, then Israel too -- finally -- deserves its full acceptance as a Jewish state by Palestine and all of its neighbors, an integral element of any compromise solution.

Much has been written about the President's declining Jewish political support, whether it is his abysmal approval ratings in Israel, or a potential fracturing of the traditional Jewish/Democratic alliance in this country -- an issue much discussed in the recent special election in New York.  I continue to believe that the President's heart is with the Jewish state, and that his well-intentioned and well-documented instinct to cede strong principle in order to find middle ground has been misinterpreted by some as indifference to Israel's plight.

This is another reason that the time is now for him to step up, stand firm and demonstrate clearly and forcefully that Israel has his and his country's unwavering support, and that no solution in the region will be implemented without Israel's ability to actively negotiate on behalf of its own interests for safety and security. This is Barack Obama's defining moment on Israel.

In a much different kind of defining moment, nearly four decades ago, the whole world watched helplessly as the Israeli people suffered a debilitating blow on a Munich runway.  Today, the global community anxiously awaits President Obama's signals on the Israeli predicament of the moment. As I sit on another Munich tarmac, I have sincere hope that through a strong demonstration of support for Israel's security and for a negotiated solution, President Obama can relaunch the journey towards a fundamental and fair peace in the region.