Trudy Rubin
The Philadelphia Inquirer (Opinion)
July 29, 2009 - 12:00am

Any president who tries to foster peace between Israelis and Arabs must be part diplomat and part shrink.

President Obama seems to understand this. He came to office determined to restore trust between America and the world's Muslims. In his famous Cairo speech, he called for both sides to make a "sustained effort to listen to each other." He also pledged to pursue peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

But as top U.S. officials trek to Israel this week, Israelis are sending the message that they feel jilted. "Why won't Obama talk to Israel?" asks Aluf Benn, editor-at-large of the dovish Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz, in a New York Times op-ed. "The Arabs got the Cairo speech; we got silence."

Never mind that Obama pledged in Cairo that our strong bonds with Israel are "unbreakable." A Jerusalem Post poll found that 50 percent of respondents believe Obama's policies are pro-Palestinian, and only 6 percent think they are pro-Israeli. (No one appears to care if U.S. policies are balanced or in line with American interests.)

Benn's plaint is a necessary reminder that, unless Israeli and Palestinian publics believe in the peace process, it will fail.

The Obama team knows both publics have lost faith in peace talks. Dennis Ross, the White House point man on the Mideast and the region's chief peace negotiator under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, made that clear in a book he co-wrote this year, Myths, Illusions and Peace: Finding a New Direction for America and the Middle East.

"We believe the most formidable obstacle [to peace] is the disbelief that exists on both sides," Ross wrote. "The fact that the Israeli and Palestinian publics no longer believe that peace is possible disempowers their leaders."

I agree; I'll get to what can be done about it in a moment. But first, let me address those who say the talk about public opinion is malarkey and explain why they are wrong.

In years of travels in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, I've seen the difference public opinion can make for peace prospects. In the 1990s, a majority of Israelis backed the Oslo peace process under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and later under Ehud Barak, because they believed a two-state solution was possible.

That belief withered in the fall of 2000, when Palestinians began a second uprising while talks were ongoing. This alienated many Israeli doves, who helped elect uber-hawk Ariel Sharon in 2001. Israelis were also disillusioned after Sharon's unilateral withdrawal from Gaza was followed by a barrage of Hamas missiles. Wary of future withdrawals, Israelis elected hard-liner Benjamin Netanyahu this year.

Palestinian public opinion also shifted during the 1990s. In 1996, when the Oslo process still held promise, the Palestinian public forced Yasir Arafat to crack down on Hamas after it carried out two bus bombings. Palestinians feared Hamas attacks would destroy the prospects for two states.

But Palestinian opinion soured on peace when the Oslo years produced a huge expansion in Israeli settlement construction on the West Bank, along with severe restrictions on Palestinian movement, leading to a crippled economy.

As for the Gaza withdrawal, Palestinians saw it very differently. They believed Israel was withdrawing from territory it didn't want (and whose borders it still controlled) so as to cement its hold on the West Bank. (Indeed, a key Sharon aide, Dov Weisglass, said as much publicly.) So Palestinians voted for the rejectionist Hamas by a slim margin in the 2006 elections. Hamas now controls Gaza, and President Mahmoud Abbas, of the rival Fatah faction, controls the West Bank.

Obama has tried to tackle the mistrust factor by encouraging Israelis, Palestinians, and Arab states to make reciprocal gestures, including an Israeli freeze on settlement construction. So far, no go.

Perhaps it's time for Obama to reassure Israelis directly by giving an interview on prime-time Israeli television. He could explain why a freeze - and two states - would serve both Israeli and American interests. He could also assure Israelis of a U.S. security umbrella in the region.

"Israeli public opinion is an extremely important component of this whole process. It's not too late to focus on this component," said Ori Nir, spokesman for Americans for Peace Now, an advocacy group linked with Israel's largest peace movement.

Now that Obama has tried Mideast diplomacy, it may be time for him to play Mideast shrink.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017