President Barack Obama is about to embark on a long-anticipated visit to Israel, his first as president. Not only does this present an opportunity for him to reset relations with Israel — which had their rough spots during his first term — but it could also enable him to set a new tone for the administration’s foreign policy in the Middle East.
The optimism associated with the “Arab Spring” after he was first inaugurated has largely dissipated, replaced by concern about the instability of the region and the uncertain prospects for democracy in the Arab and Muslim states there.
The president has already said that he has no intentions of jump-starting Israeli-Palestinian peace talks on this visit. Rather, he is there to listen to different points of view and to address the Israeli people directly. In doing so, it is essential that he candidly and forthrightly address three key issues.
• First, President Obama should articulate his understanding that the state of Israel is the realization of the Zionist dream of reconstituting Jewish sovereignty in its ancient homeland, a historical achievement accomplished against the backdrop of the unspeakable tragedy of the Holocaust. He should acknowledge that over the 65 years of its existence, the state has provided the means for Jewish civilization to thrive and to contribute much to the spiritual, cultural and scientific benefit of the world. And he should make clear that U.S.-Israel relations are based on a shared commitment to democratic values, a commodity in short supply in today’s Middle East.
The president should therefore categorically reject any attack on Israel’s legitimacy, all forms of Holocaust denial and all manifestations of anti-Semitism. As examples of the unacceptable he might cite the statement of the Egyptian official in charge of state newspaper editors denying the Holocaust on the day designated by the U.N. as International Holocaust Remembrance Day; Egyptian President Morsi’s description of Jews as sons of monkeys and pigs; and the recent diatribe of Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan, who told the global forum of the U.N. Alliance of Civilizations in Vienna that Zionism is a “crime against humanity.”
• Second, even without a new peace plan in his pocket, President Obama should emphasize that when the U.S. declares unilateral actions unwise and counterproductive, it does not just refer to Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank. He should proudly cite his administration’s consistent opposition to Palestinian attempts at achieving statehood recognition by bypassing the negotiating process, and promise to continue this policy because only through direct negotiations can sustainable Israeli-Palestinian peace be achieved.
While acknowledging real suffering of both Israelis and Palestinians, he should tell the Palestinian leadership that if it truly wants peace, it should return to the negotiating table and stop all incitement to violence against Israelis.
• Finally, Mr. Obama must reassure the people of Israel that Iran will not be permitted to achieve nuclear-weapons capability, a step that threatens not only Israel but also American strategic interests in the region and the peace of the world. He can vividly demonstrate American support for Israel on this issue by citing what happened at the recent meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency, when the U.S. ambassador, along with his Canadian, Australian and New Zealand colleagues, walked out after Iran’s ambassador accused Israel of genocide.
President Obama will undoubtedly express our country’s preference to stop the Iranian nuclear gambit through diplomacy — a preference that Israel shares — but that must be coupled with a reiteration of the insistence that all options remain on the table, including the military option.
Overall, the president will accomplish much if he can convince ordinary Israelis that he understands their anxieties as a democracy whose enemies seek its destruction, and that the United States, under his leadership, will work with Israel to achieve a secure peace with its neighbors.
Brian D. Siegal is director of the American Jewish Committee’s Miami and Broward Region