This week I have received many questions from friends in the United States interested to know how Israelis received President Obama's speech in Cairo.
American's were hopeful that Obama's address would capitalize on a historic opportunity to bring reconciliation between the United States and the Muslim world. In his speech Obama said, "I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect; and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition."
Even the staunchest critics of President Obama's leadership concede that he is an inspiring orator. It was the kind of speech unimaginable from former President George W. Bush and infused at least a glimmer of hope that peace is around the corner. In a region paralyzed by mistrust and century-old religious and ethnic conflict, Obama's words made peace sound so simple.
Yet from my experience, Israelis don't know quite what to think of Obama. During the eight years of the Bush administration, Israelis found it much easier to gage American policy in relation to Israel. In the framework of the global war on terror, Israel stood on the frontlines in the battle against extremism. But now Obama seems relentless in his desire to uproot settlements in the West Bank and create a Palestinian state.
According to some polls, a majority of Israelis support the idea of a Palestinian state, but are also wary of territorial compromise. The memories of the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza and the ensuing barrage of rocket are fresh in people's minds.
I believe Israelis would be thrilled at the prospect of improved relations with other nations in the region but are cautious of Obama's willingness to open up dialogue with states that have called for the destruction of Israel. Israelis are also fearful of giving up too much in return for minimal gain. If the Palestinians declare statehood and the West Bank is taken over by Hamas terrorists than what kind of peace is that?
Obama's speech in Cairo introduced a new tone for American foreign policy based on mutual understanding and respect with the Arab world, but Israelis are still waiting to see what impact this will have.
Obama promised a renewed commitment to Middle East peace, calling on every nation to help the Palestinian people move towards independence, and reaffirmed America's unwavering commitment to the
State of Israel. He has extended the olive branch to virtually every nation in the Middle East, with good intentions and a desire for peace, but Israelis have much more to lose if American strategy fails.
The recent parliamentary elections in Lebanon were the first opportunity to assess whether Obama's words fell on deaf ears throughout the Arab world. The victory of the Hariri-led pro-western coalition is a good sign that Arab nations are open to improved relations with the West. However, Israelis are still on the fence with Obama, waiting to see results from his regional strategy. After all, actions speak louder than words and it will take more than eloquent speeches to win the support of the Israeli public.