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The World Needs More Than Words From Obama on Mideast Peace

This week President Obama will talk a lot about the Middle East. Not only will he deliver a major foreign policy address aimed at the Arab and Muslim worlds, but he will also offer remarks after meetings with King Abdullah of Jordan and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and make a speech at AIPAC.

People around the world -- and particularly in the Middle East -- will be listening closely and critically.

Everyone knows the president is a brilliant speechmaker, but inspiring words and soaring oratory won't suffice this time. His audience in the region and around the world will be looking for proof that Obama means what he says, particularly when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- a conflict that holds a prominent place in their hearts and minds, no matter how much some of Obama's advisors wish it weren't so. They will welcome his words of support and his appeal to shared values of freedom and democracy, but they will judge his seriousness by whether they see evidence that he is personally engaged and taking dramatic action -- like presenting his vision of Israeli-Palestinian permanent status and laying out how he plans to achieve it -- to end the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate.

No doubt some of Obama's advisors are telling him that doing anything on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at this point in his term, other than seeking to placate the American Jewish right, is a losing bet.  They are mistaken. 

There is nothing President Obama can do to placate the tiny segment of American Jews, and a certain segment of American Christians, that opposes any realistic peace agreement. He could provide billions more in aid to Israel, veto a hundred more UN Security Council resolutions, pledge his unshakable support for Israel a more thousand times -- it wouldn't matter. Because these people believe that no matter what he says or does, he still has it in him, under the right circumstances, to do what they fear most: get serious about peace. Soft-pedaling peace efforts today will likewise not satisfy them.  And it will harm U.S. national security interests -- including security and stability in the Middle East.

These advisors also fail to understand a simple fact: history will show that the most pro-Israel U.S. president was not be the one who provided the most weapons to Israel and vetoed the most UN Security Council resolutions, but the one who brought peace, and with it, real security, to Israel, and independence to the Palestinian people.

President Obama's foreign policy plate is overflowing, but the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can't be shunted to the side. The Middle East is in flux, and this issue won't wait until after the next presidential elections. It is cliché to say that there is no stable status quo in this conflict, but this past weekend was a demonstration of the truth behind the words. The world saw how easily the situation on the ground - in Jerusalem, in the West Bank, in the Gaza Strip, on the Syrian and Lebanese borders - can spiral out of control.

The Palestinian people are today asking why the Arab Spring, with its promise of freedom and democracy, doesn't apply to them. It is fantasy to expect them to remain quiescent under occupation as the rest of the region rises up and demands change.

Palestinian leaders, too, have finally given up waiting for U.S. peace efforts to deliver Palestinian dignity and self-determination. After two decades of disappointments and more settlements, they have concluded that unless and until the U.S. is ready to get serious, they must pursue their own course -- not through violence but through diplomacy -- irrespective of what the U.S. thinks.

And the international community is increasingly sympathetic to this paradigm shift, with even our closest allies apparently ready for the first time in decades to pursue their own independent foreign policies in this arena, reflecting their growing disillusionment with a U.S. policy that is clearly at odds with their vital interests.

They are not alone in this assessment. Some of President Obama's own officials have acknowledged that the continuation of the conflict harms U.S. interests in the region and around the world.  Indeed, the absence of a credible, serious U.S. foreign policy vis-à-vis this conflict directly undermines America's ability to project leadership across the full spectrum of the foreign policy challenges the U.S. faces today. 

This is a pivotal moment for the Middle East -- a moment that demands courageous American leadership, not just great speech-making. People around the world -- including most American Jews -- still want to believe that President Obama can live up to his principles and his promises when it comes to Middle East peace. Dramatic action from the President to prove them right is critical, and can no longer be postponed.