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Netanyahu brings starkly different vision to Obama's White House

While President Obama has voiced support for pro-democracy uprisings across the Middle East, the instability has made Israel's Netanyahu wary of making concessions for peace.

By Correspondent / May 20, 2011

Masked Palestinian demonstrators hurl stones at an Israeli military watch-tower during clashes with Israeli troops, not seen, at the Qalandiya checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem, Friday, May 20. President Barack Obama on Thursday finally uttered the words the Palestinians had been waiting to hear for two years: that the basis for border talks with Israel is the pre-1967 war line.

Majdi Mohammed/AP

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Tel Aviv

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opened a US visit today at the White House, bringing with him a fundamentally different vision of the Middle East than the one presented by President Barack Obama in a major policy speech yesterday.

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As Mr. Obama encourages democratic reforms across the Arab world, he meets the leader of a nation deeply wary about the regional instability wrought by six months of Arab uprisings. Israeli officials emphasize that the rising influence of political Islam and efforts by Iran to expand its footprint in the region make concessions for peace riskier than ever.

"If we warned before, our concerns have been reinforced,’’ says Zalman Shoval, a Netanyahu aide. "While we hope that this will lead to democratization, there’s no guarantee…. Nobody really knows the answers.’’

At stake for Israel is the threat of increasing isolation as a result of an upcoming United Nations vote in support of a Palestinian state, which could circumvent the US-led peace process between Israelis and Palestinians.

Israel also fears rising attacks on its legitimacy which could bolster boycott movements and potentially turn it into a pariah. It could inspire more mass protests from emboldened Arab neighbors, as seen in the May 15 Nakba demonstrations that drew tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees and their supporters to protest the "catastrophe" of Jewish independence 63 years ago.

Netanyahu needs to give Obama alternatives

Mr. Netanyahu is particularly wary about pursuing peace with Mahmoud Abbas when the Palestinian Authority president and Fatah leader has just reconciled with the Islamist militant group Hamas. The American president addressed that and other Israeli security concerns, but said peace was more urgent than ever.

"Obama rejected Netanyahu’s claims that the revolutions in the Arab world require a freeze of the peace process until the situation in the region becomes clearer," wrote Aluf Ben, a political commentator for the Israeli daily Haaretz newspaper. "He made it clear that the world is sick of the unending peace process that leads nowhere."

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Obama also suggested that delay could be detrimental to Israel's interests. The vacuum in the peace process provides an opening for initiatives like the Palestinian push for United Nations recognition of their sovereignty, as well as mass protests on Israel’s border with Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and the West Bank – a sign, perhaps, that the Arab Spring has reinvigorated Palestinian nonviolence.

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