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The Naked King and the Speech

When he arrives in Israel next month, President Obama will have a new and promising partner for solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: the Israeli people.
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When he arrives in Israel next month, President Obama will have a new and promising partner for solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The new partner that emerged from the January Israeli election does not share Prime Minister Netanyahu's priorities of investing in the settlements and prioritizing pretexts over peace. This new partner is none other than the Israeli people. Much like the rest of the American body politic, in the last four years the Obama administration was reading Israel through the positions of Netanyahu. "King Bibi," as Time Magazine declared him, was portrayed as a strong leader, who in many ways is a personification of the Israeli public opinion. The White House was not alone on that: When the two chambers of Congress gave Bibi a record number of standing ovations in his visit in May 2011, they were sure they were hailing the Israeli spirit. Yet, the January 2013 elections in Israel portrayed a much different picture, one that to most Israelis was clear all along: Netanyahu is a weak leader, who represents no more than half of the Israeli public, and one that has significantly drifted apart from the backbone of the Israeli society -- its middle class. The election was a clear message that middle class Israelis are fed-up with hearing just how great their country is doing in macro-economical terms, while their cost of living is rising dramatically. They are tired of bearing the heavy burdens of increasing taxes and arduous military service, while Netanyahu's Haredi allies are exempt from service and subsisting outside the formal economy. Perhaps most significant for Mr. Obama, the Israeli middle class voted against Bibi's defiance of the international community and heavy investment in the settlement enterprise, as well as his coalition's crack-down on democratic institutions and ideals. The message is clear: Israelis want Israel to be a normal, western state. To me, this American misreading of Israeli politics and society doesn't come as a surprise. From my three years in the Nation's Capital, I noticed the poor understanding of Israel's political arena among stakeholders at all levels. There are many reasons for this misreading. One is the vast difference between the two political systems. Another is the fact that many of those who represent "the Israeli voice" in the U.S., often do that with a very monolithic approach that doesn't reflect the full range of the Israeli internal debate. One might not expect the world's only superpower to be heavily engaged in understanding a small democracy miles and miles away, yet when that small democracy is playing an increasing role both in American domestic political arena as well as in its foreign policy, such a deep understanding is essential. President Obama and his newly appointed Secretary of State John Kerry's decision to have their first official trips in this term to Israel shows that the election results had an impact. The alarming voices encouraging "hands-off" policy or saying "we can't want this more than they do" that were coming both from Pennsylvania Avenue and Foggy Bottom have been replaced by a new willingness of engagement. Yet, it is important that the administration not stake its efforts toward peace on specific political actors within Israel. They will let him down. The president has a rare ability to touch minds and souls through his oratory. He did so successfully in his first term during a visit to Egypt. Many say that his speech at the Cairo University was one of the catalysts that ignited the democratic movement in Tahrir Square. The president should do the same thing in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv: He should speak over the head of Netanyahu directly to the Israeli public. We are in the last historic moments of the opportunity for a two-state solution. A failure to promote it is the biggest threat to Israel's mere existence as a democratic Jewish homeland, and President Obama has been overhead saying this very thing himself. The Israeli public is ready to hear that message. It is in the true Israeli national interest and the American national interest, and the time to act is now.

Uri Zaki is the Washington director of an Israeli non-profit organization and was a candidate in the recent Israeli elections on the Meretz list.