THE BLOG
01/31/2011 05:23 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Bold Move by Obama Needed to Save Middle East Peace Process

As President Obama faces mounting revolutionary turmoil in the Middle East, it is imperative that he avoid placing the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process on the back burner, which would only cement the skepticism already held by both sides about his handling of the peace process. In the wake of al-Jazeera's publication of the "Palestine Papers," the spreading anti-government sentiment across the region, including in the West Bank, a choice by Washington to back away from its Mideast peace efforts could drive a stake in hopes for a two-state solution. To avoid this tragic outcome, Obama should take the bold decision to travel to the region and make a direct appeal to Israelis and Palestinians. Only such a dramatic move will enable him to rebuild his credibility with both sides and rescue peace from the fire of revolution.

The ascendance of Obama on the political scene was accompanied by a brief spark of hope in the Arab and Muslim world. Whereas Bush had the ignoble distinction of being the most reviled world leader, Obama was initially viewed positively in the region. For most of his presidency, Bush relentlessly prosecuted the war in Iraq while largely neglecting the Palestinian issue -- a top priority for Arabs and Muslims around the world. Obama, by contrast, has emphasized this issue from the beginning of his presidency. In his address at Egypt's Cairo University on June 4, 2009, he declared that "the only resolution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states, where Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security," and asserted that a two-state solution is "in Israel's interest, America's interest, and the world's interest."

With Obama now entering his third year in office, however, there has been little substantial progress toward this important foreign policy priority, leaving Arabs once again angry and frustrated with the United States. A poll of Israeli Arab and Palestinian attitudes toward the United States conducted last fall by Professor Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland, for example, reveals that 56% of Israeli Arabs and Palestinians viewed the United States in an unfavorable light, in contrast to the previous year's poll, which showed that less than half -- 47% -- viewed the United States negatively.

These findings mirror the trend in the Arab world at large. Other surveys conducted by Telhami show that, whereas in 2009, 51% of the respondents in six Arab countries -- Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Jordan, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates -- expressed optimism about U.S. policy in the region, last year's poll showed that only 16% of Arabs were hopeful, while a majority -- 63% -- were discouraged. Today, one would be hard-pressed to hear words of praise for Obama among Palestinians or other Arabs, or to find the sort of pro-Obama souvenirs that were popular in Egyptian bazaars less than two years ago, such as the one that read "Obama New Tutankhamon of the World."

Obama's favorability ratings among Israelis have fared no better, though for a different reason: Israelis have never quite trusted him to look out for their security. Polls consistently have found that a majority of Israelis hold a negative view of the president, who has failed at every stage to connect with them.

Following his Cairo address, Obama miscalculated with his single-minded focus on obtaining a complete freeze of Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank and East Jerusalem -- a demand that Prime Minister Netanyahu rejected. The president eventually abandoned this demand, leaving the Arabs flustered and the Israelis -- to whom he has never attempted to reach out in similar fashion -- no less distrustful of his intentions.

In essence, Obama has given assurances to the Palestinians that were not delivered, and he has asked the Israelis to deliver without giving them assurances. This is why a mistrustful Israeli public has offered little domestic opposition to Netanyahu's repeated stonewalling of President Obama. Meanwhile, the Palestinians have abandoned nearly all hope for attaining statehood; in the face of American impotence, they are increasingly mobilizing to declare a state unilaterally.

To break this dangerous impasse, the president will need to make far better use of his diplomatic toolkit. In fact, he has yet to utilize his strongest asset: his unique ability to inspire people.

Inspiring average Israelis and Palestinians, who are on the verge of giving up hope, will require Obama to appeal to each side directly. The best way to do this is for him to travel to the region to deliver a message before the Israeli Knesset and the Palestinian parliament.

A Knesset speech would enable Obama to assure Israelis of his commitment to their security. This type of direct, personal appeal would go a long way toward winning Israelis' trust and willingness to take risks for peace. Nearly 34 years ago, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's visit to Israel had a dramatic psychological effect on the Israeli public, convincing a majority of Israelis to support a withdrawal from the Sinai peninsula in exchange for a peace agreement. Less than two years later, Israel's right-wing prime minister, Menachem Begin, signed a peace agreement with Egypt.

The president's message should be that, with President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, Israel has a moderate, pragmatic Palestinian partner with whom a deal is not only possible, but desirable. A prolonged diplomatic impasse, he should warn, will invariably lead to their replacement by a less pragmatic leadership and, worse, the possibility of renewed violence. He should remind them that, given demographic trends, the status quo threatens the very future of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. Nor should he shy away from American and international concerns about their government's provocative moves, such as the approval of new settlement building, which is detrimental to peace. But the president's message should be clear throughout in assuring Israelis that America will make no compromises when it comes to its commitment to their security.

An Obama visit to Jerusalem should be followed by a visit to Ramallah and a speech before the Palestinian parliament. Palestinians need to hear that the United States is committed to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. The president should stress that the two-state solution is the only viable solution to their conflict with Israel and that it is the only one the United States is prepared to support. To realize their dream of statehood, however, the Palestinians must forgo declaring such a state unilaterally, foreswear violence as an option, and engage in direct talks with the Israelis. They should be given assurances that the United States will be committed to the security and sovereignty of a non-violent Palestinian state. Such a state, moreover, will receive generous economic and technical assistance from the United States.

To be sure, speeches alone will not lead to an Israeli-Palestinian accord. Even if the dual speech approach is successful in jumpstarting serious peace talks, the administration will need to remain actively engaged in the process, weathering crises large and small, until a final deal is reached. It will need to press both sides to meet their obligations - even at the risk of straining relations with one or both parties. Yet, at this time, a dramatic move by Obama to court Israeli and Palestinian public opinion is needed to get the people on board and prevent the eruption of violence in the West Bank.