Make Israel Feel Special Again

The State of the Union speech offers a good opportunity for U.S. President Barack Obama to preview the messages he will deliver on his visit next month to the Middle East. Here’s the task he faces:

To the Israelis, Obama needs to say two things at once. The first is simple: He needs to tell Israelis that he loves them. President Bill Clinton understood the value of telling an isolated and widely despised people that he was on their side. In this speech, and especially during his visit, Obama could go a long way toward demonstrating similar sympathy.

The second message is more difficult: Obama needs to tell the Israelis that, because he loves them, he is worried about their behavior. He needs to say that the West Bank settlement project is imperiling Israel’s future as a democratic Jewish state. Delivering this message from Washington is one thing, however. Saying it in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, in the bluntest manner feasible, might shock the system.

To the Palestinians, the message is also simple: Deal with reality. Israel isn’t going away, and your refugees and their descendants will have to settle in the West Bank and Gaza. Your answers won’t be found in the charter of Hamas or in the halls of the United Nations. You only need the recognition of one country to gain a state of your own, and that country is Israel. Most Israelis want compromise; most also believe it is impossible with the partner they have. Palestinians have to prove them wrong. And Israelis need to give Palestinians hope that if they accept Israel, Israel is ready to cede land for peace.

Only if Obama delivers these messages will he be able to get to actual negotiations, and Americans need to be reminded of how hard, and important, that work will be.

(Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist and a national correspondent for the Atlantic. The opinions expressed are his own. This is one of 11 suggestions Bloomberg View columnists made for the foreign policy section of Barack Obama's State of the Union address. Read more here.)

To contact the author of this column: Jeffrey Goldberg at goldberg.atlantic@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Timothy Lavin at tlavin1@bloomberg.net.

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