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Netanyahu caught between Obama, Israeli settlers

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 18, 2009

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (r.) and his wife, Sara, walk off an airplane after arriving in Washington on Sunday.

Moshe Milner/Reuters

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Tel Aviv

With Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's White House meeting today with President Barack Obama seen by some as an historic showdown, Jewish settlers are worried.

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"Bibi!" shouts a huge billboard on the back of commuter buses, a warning from one of the more uncompromising constituencies in Israeli politics. "Protect the Land of Israel... History will remember you as a strong leader who didn't surrender."

As Mr. Netanyahu makes his first trip to the US since taking office in April, his challenge is to reconcile two opposite forces at play: the right-wing members of his governing coalition and his need to have a good working relationship with the US – Israel's strongest ally.

Though the Israeli leader is known the world over as a stubborn security hawk, back home he has a reputation for becoming weak-kneed when the pressure is on – most recently over budget negotiations last week. And the pressure is likely to be on in today's meeting with Mr. Obama, whose administration has endorsed Palestinian statehood and a freeze on the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

Gershon Baskin, the codirector of the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information, says that while Netanyahu has not yet endorsed a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it's not out of the question.

"Statehood is not a matter of principle with him. It's an issue of security," he says. "So if it's not a matter of principle, he can be manipulated and pressured. He has legitimate concern about a Palestinian state endangering Israel's security, and if the Americans want to advance the solution of the Palestinian state they will address those problems."

The problem, Mr. Baskin noted, is that compromise on the Palestinian issue risks unraveling Netanyahu's coalition.

Settlers: 'Don't cave in again'

A far-right party representing Jewish settlers in the West Bank sent a preemptive warning that if Netanyahu compromises on a Palestinian accord at the White House, they'll pull out of his coalition. Referring to Netanyahu's concession during his first term as prime minister – he also relinquished Israeli control over most of the West Bank town of Hebron – Jewish Home party and parliament member Uri Orbach said, "when one is burned by hot water, they are wary of cold water.

"We hope that he will stand up for himself," Orbach added in an interview with Israel Radio. "We aren't in the government to support a Palestinian state."

Parliament speaker Reuven Rivlin, a member of Netanyahu's own party, said a two-state solution is a "problem."