Now into his second hundred days on the job, Barack Obama is doing what no recent President was willing to do: jump right into the Middle East peace process and make it a centerpiece of his entire foreign policy agenda. While it is a radically different approach, Obama telegraphed his intentions repeatedly during the long campaign. No one should be surprised that even while the fresh paint on the White House walls is barely dry, Israeli and Palestinian leaders are scrambling to figure out their next steps.
Some elements in the American Jewish community are sounding alarms over what they perceive as pressure on Israel. In Jerusalem, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is said to be upset there is little wiggle room in the American position, which he heard over and over from the President in the White House, from Secretary Clinton at the State Department, and even from Israel's friends on Capitol Hill.
But for all the public complaining, Israeli leaders ought to be relieved. Instead of digging in and holding fast to ideologically driven positions, Netanyahu should take "yes" for an answer by using Obama's framework as his own.
With Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas having come and gone from the White House, Obama's demand are simple and clear. Israel must cease expansion of existing settlements, even for so-called "natural growth" that would accommodate the needs of growing families wanting more space. Palestinians must continue to improve the security situation in the West Bank and, as the President articulated openly for the first time, "make progress in reducing the incitement and anti-Israel sentiments that are sometimes expressed in schools and mosques and in the public square, because all those things are impediments to peace."
For Israel, despite the anxieties, the U.S. demands are not onerous. They don't begin to touch on dismantling of existing settlements, thereby reducing Israel's footprint in the West Bank. The potential physical confrontations between the Israeli army and the settler movement are minimized, with only stray outposts having to be pulled down to satisfy the freeze policy. The tough stuff is far down the road.
But for the Palestinians, the demand is not only to maintain and increase the level of peace and security on the West Bank - no small challenge - but to change the entire culture of hate that for generations has permeated Palestinian and Arab societies. The maps of the region that refuse to show Israel, the schoolbooks that demonize Jews, the curricula that challenge Israel's right to exist, the speeches that incite violence, the TV shows geared to children that encourage killing of Jews, the sermons extolling "martyrs" and terrorism - all this and more are now President Abbas' burden, and rightly so.
Perhaps Israel's leaders are complaining now to mask their relief that Obama has not demanded something that truly would be hard to accomplish, like a unilateral pullback from West Bank settlements. After the Gaza experience - where Israel evacuated all its settlements and its military, only to be rewarded with thousands of near-daily rocket attacks launched by Hamas at Israeli civilians - no Israeli government will act unilaterally to give up West Bank territory. That will come only in the context of negotiations with a credible partner, one strong enough to live up to its agreed obligations, including those Obama just wrapped around Abbas' neck.
Even so, a large majority of Israelis know they must end their rule over the Palestinians, just as Israel is better off for having ended its occupation of Gaza and south Lebanon. Israel's long-term health and welfare depends on achieving that strategic goal, and it will be easier to accomplish with its U.S. relationship intact.
This week, as Obama prepares to make his long awaited, high profile speech to the Muslim world in Cairo, Netanyahu would be smart to say he understands, appreciates and agrees with the priority Obama is placing on Middle East peace, and that he pledges to do his part by acceding to the President's terms. At the same time, he should say that Israel expects an equally forthcoming effort by Abbas to comply with Obama's stated wishes, and for Obama to use his Cairo speech to press the entire Arab world to take concrete steps toward the kind of normalization he spelled out in the Oval Office.
A cynic might point out that prospects for peace would come to a crashing halt for at least a generation if there was no movement until the culture of hate was eliminated. That wouldn't be in Israel's best interest, but it sure would buy it a lot of time.
The writer is President of The Kurz Company, an international communications firm. He served as Communications Director to then-Senator Joe Biden, and spokesman for Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, from 2000-2006.