The Washington face-off between President Obama and Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu, prime minister of the new right-wing Israeli government, represents the first chapter in a new era. It could yet go either way.
On the surface, smiles and handshakes are de rigeur. Meanwhile, everyone is asking what's going on behind the scenes. New Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman was in no doubt - he said recently to a Russian newspaper that the US "accepts all Israel's decisions": Obama will do as he's told.
US National Security Adviser James Jones and the president's chief of staff Rahm Emanuel reportedly have a different take. In the words of the Economist, "What may be Israel's most intransigent government ever elected is scared stiff that an American administration may squeeze it until its pips squeak."
Beyond the politicking, questions of what ordinary Israelis and Palestinians want, and who they trust, are just as crucial in determining whether peace is possible. So last week we asked them -- in representative Israeli and Palestinian public opinion polls specially commissioned for global citizens' network Avaaz.
The results of these new polls were striking -- so much so that they inspired us to make a TV ad called "Leadership," addressed to President Obama and opening with Lieberman's incendiary statement quoted above. Running on US television networks this week, the ad centers on what people in the region told us in those polls.
For starters, Israelis trust Obama as a leader far more than their own prime minister Bibi Netanyahu -- with 59% of Israelis calling the US President trustworthy, and only 31% saying this of Bibi.
What is more, 65% of Israelis -- that's almost two in three -- want President Obama to get actively involved to help solve the conflict, as do 70% of Palestinians.
That amounts to a stunning vote of confidence from people in the region for Obama to take a lead for Middle East peace. It seems to be linked to Israelis' and Palestinians' doubts about their own leaders' ability to bring peace when they're left alone together -- doubts which are very understandable when you take even a glance at the record.
It used to be a point of principle for US negotiators like Dennis Ross that "We can't want peace more than the parties." But most ordinary Israelis and Palestinians desperately want a peace based on two states. It is their politicians who are failing to knuckle down and deliver it -- which is why the people's hopes for leadership, and peace, now seem to rest more with Obama.
Thousands of people have donated to our ad to show the President that people in the region, in the US and around the world will back him if he takes the lead. It calls for him to advance a bold Obama Plan for Middle East peace, instead of endorsing just more dead-end talks between failing leaders. Here is the ad:
One thing is for sure: we can't afford to fail. As King Abdullah of Jordan said last week, it's now a simple choice between more war or peace in the Middle East.
Israelis and Palestinians are crying out for someone to change the game. Yet if Middle East peace is a US interest, it is US citizens who will need to stand up and be counted, and US politicians and policymakers who will need to steel their nerves, to engage all the parties -- and, finally, to lead.
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