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Tel Aviv Calling, Mr. Obama

US President Barack Obama should skip the dismal visits to tombs and monuments in Jerusalem in his forthcoming visit to Israel and drop by Tel Aviv instead, writes Ben Caspit.

Welcome to Israel, Mr. President. Better late than never. You’re coming at the start of your second term and Benjamin Netantyahu’s third term (provided he succeeds in cobbling together a government). This is the term that will define what you did, what you achieved, what you left behind — for both of you. I took a glimpse at your anticipated schedule, Mr. President, and frankly, I felt a tad uncomfortable. I feel your pain. The plans for your trip to the Holy Land include a visit to tombs, monuments, and other gloomy sites. It’s an ascetic’s pilgrimage, lacking any inspiration or sunlight.

The problem isn’t you. It’s us. That’s how we welcome everyone here. We get them to sign in at Yad Vashem [the Holocaust Museum] and make sure not to skip a visit to Mount Herzl national cemetery, before whisking them off to see the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Eternal Flame. Two thousand years of Jewish suffering in exile are dropped on the drooping shoulders of our guests. It always ends with a bad case of the doldrums, with feelings of guilt and pangs of conscience. And there is always that same sigh of relief on the plane on their way home: “Thank God for getting me out of there!”

If I were you, Mr. President, I would reformat the entire visit. I would turn it from a dismal pilgrimage to Jerusalem to an enlightened visit to Tel Aviv, from a journey of misgivings, wariness, and suspicion to a journey of enlightenment, optimism, and hope. Open up your Lonely Planet Guide, or any other tour book for that matter, and skip right to the section about Tel Aviv to understand what I’m talking about.

A while ago Nadav Eyal used this site to call on you to pay a visit to Rabin Square. It would be amazing if you did. I’m joining the call of Nadav Eyal and the Facebook page with the same goal. We’re starving for a little warmth, a little love, Mr. President. We want you to talk to us, to look us in the eyes, and to listen to what we have to say. We really want to believe you. We want to trust you and extend a reluctant hand to you, so that you can lead us to safe harbor. You can pick up the phone and call former President Bill Clinton, who gave the speech of his life at your convention not too long ago. Ask him about how he established such an incredible relationship with us. Yes, Mr. Obama, you are a cooler, much more calculating man, but you can do it, too. At least you can try. What have you really got to lose if it doesn’t work out? And if it does work out? The sky is the limit.

Let’s try to sum up the results of Israel’s elections together, results that prove that right here, in Israel, deep in the heart of the bloody riots over the ruins of Middle Eastern despots’ regimes, you will find a normal country. Despite what we originally thought, Israelis haven’t lost hope … yet. Unlike what we originally thought, most Israelis aren’t opposed to the peace process. Actually, a clear majority supports it. Take the 59 seats won by the Center-Left bloc and add at least 10 seats from the Likud, who are a credit to the “Bar Ilan” speech by their leader Benjamin Netanyahu. Even among the supporters of Shas and Yahadut HaTorah,  there are quite a few people who wouldn’t exactly mourn if Israel finally sketched out its permanent borders and stopped spending a significant part of its resources on the other side of the Separation Fence.

Israelis have yet to find an alternative to Benjamin Netanyahu. First of all, there isn’t any yet. Second of all, because they, like you, are deeply suspicious of their immediate surroundings, and their more distant surroundings too. They are willing to move ahead, but they have to do it slowly, carefully. They want peace, but they aren’t willing to sacrifice their security to get it. This is where you come into the picture, Mr. Obama.

If you will know how to convince Israelis that there is someone they can rely on, that someone in Washington has their back, and will still have their back even in the darkest moments, then it might yet be possible to get something done here. Israelis are naturally optimistic. You can see that in all the studies and polls. It’s hard to explain or even understand how, despite all the “blood and flames and pillars of smoke” that shape our lives, we still manage to remain optimistic, but it’s a fact. The last election proved that more Israelis would prefer to live a normal life here, instead of ruling over another people. They don’t want to sink into the bog of a religious war, and would rather keep their liberal, open, and enlightened values, commonly accepted around the world. There are more of them than there are Israelis who sanctify the settlements and believe in the inviolability of a few clumps of sod and some fictitious tombs. These findings are encouraging, but they won’t be around forever.

The optimistic Israelis need encouragement, a push, a dose of moral fortitude of the kind that you and only you, the leader of the free world, can give them.

If I were in your place, Mr. President, I would visit Tel Aviv, eat falafel in Jaffa, stroll through Yarkon Park, and have dinner at the Brasserie or the Cantina restaurants with a well-organized and diverse group of top Israelis representing all the different fields that this country has to offer. And there are a lot of fields; this country has a lot to offer. It’s not that hard. Call your ambassador Dan Shapiro, who has practically become a native Israeli by now. Israel, like America, is a nation of immigrants. Just show us an ounce of effort and we’ll do all the rest.

Like America, Mr. President, Israel is home to two distinct peoples. Yes, the country is torn into two. With you it’s Republicans vs. Democrats, conservatives vs. liberals. With us I would call it Tel Aviv vs. Jerusalem. It’s the worldly, liberal, and optimistic people of tomorrow vs. the sequestered, suspicious, and pessimistic people of yesterday. So, Mr. President, if you want to talk about Iran, the peace process, and who knows what else, save it for your private talks with the prime minister. When you talk to us Israelis, speak in your own language about your own values, with the optimism inherent in you. Come to encourage us and fill us with hope. You might even enjoy that.

Ben Caspit is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse. He is also a senior columnist and political analyst for Israeli newspapers, and has a daily radio show and regular TV shows on politics and Israel.

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