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Dear Mr. President: It's Time to Go to Israel

A Commentary By Susan Estrich

Saturday, April 02, 2011

J Street, the pro-peace, pro-Israel lobbying group, is circulating a petition calling on President Obama to go to Israel in the very near future. In my view, they are absolutely right. Such a trip is absolutely essential for two reasons.

The first is to reassure Israel of America's support in difficult times. Fairly or not, many Israelis do not trust Obama in the same way they did his two predecessors, Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

I criticized Bush for many things during his two terms (although, for the record, I never joined the crowd that "hated" him). But his support for Israel was unwavering, and while it didn't bring peace, it did provide real reassurance to Israelis, including the many who work and pray for a fair and equitable peace for themselves and their children.

As for Clinton, I can't think of any issue that was more important to him, particularly in his second term, than securing peace in the Middle East. I remember talking to him upon his return from peace talks at Wye Plantation, where he had pressured Israel to make major concessions, forging a deal that Yasser Arafat rejected in an unmistakable signal that peace was the last thing he wanted. Even in the closing days of his presidency, Clinton kept pushing. I took my children to say an "official" goodbye just a few weeks before he left office, and he was meeting with the incoming president in one room while Middle East negotiations were going on in another.

At this point, nothing short of a presidential visit will provide such reassurance. I have no problem with the president's trips to other countries that do not need reassurance of our friendship and do not raise, for us or for them, such difficult issues. But Israelis need to know that they remain our most trusted and valued ally in the Middle East. Because they are.

The need for such a visit goes well beyond symbolism. Word is that absent a viable peace process (which is, of course, the current situation), Palestinians are likely to go to the United Nations in the fall to seek recognition for a Palestinian state. You don't need me to tell you that the United Nations has not been a friend to Israel and is precisely the wrong place for all of these issues to be addressed.

With the Middle East simmering, to put it nicely, it is essential that real peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians begin, and that won't happen without the president. The Jerusalem Post quoted Defense Secretary Robert Gates on a recent trip to Israel telling the Israeli government that "real progress on the peace track with the Palestinians would put them in a much better position for where the region's likely to be in six months or a year from now." Time is of the essence, and so is the full weight of the American president.

It is not only Israelis that the president needs to address. As he so brilliantly has recognized in dealing with civil rights issues, it is not enough to address one side. He needs to go to Israel to speak to both Israelis and Palestinians, as he has done in speaking to both whites and minorities, conveying to both the message that our country is willing to support both sides in the quest for peace.

I want Obama to succeed. One of the reasons I supported Hillary back then was because I was certain of her commitment to the state of Israel. I want to be convinced that Obama is equally committed. It is not just Israelis, or the Jewish community here at home, who need reassurance and want his leadership. Americans from both parties, across the ideological spectrum, care about Israel as much as I do. We want a president who shows us that he cares, too.

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See Other Commentaries by Susan Estrich.

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