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Netanyahu caught between Obama, Israeli settlers

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Elyakim Haetzni, a former Israeli Knesset member who lives in the settlement of Kiryat Araba, says, "We have a bad experience with Netanyahu." During his first tenure as prime minister in the late 1990s, Netanyahu criticized the Oslo Accords but eventually bowed to US urging, agreeing to relinquish control over parts of the West Bank and sealing the deal by shaking Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's hand. Settlers are afraid of a repeat. "What we say to Netanyahu is don't cave in again," says Mr. Haetzni. "We are afraid that he will try to avoid the problem, to go around it, to look for a formulation."

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Two points US likely to press

There have been signs of an evolution in Netanyahu's position. Zalman Shoval, a former Israeli ambassador to the US and a current foreign-policy adviser to the prime minister, said that Israel will neither endorse the possibility of a two-state solution, nor oppose it.

Mr. Shoval said that Netanyahu won't compromise on the government position that building be allowed to continue in existing Jewish settlements to allow for "natural" population growth. The road map – a blueprint for peace that the Obama administration has endorsed – calls for a freeze in all building while the Palestinian Authority collects weapons and fights armed militants.

The Israeli prime minister comes into the meeting hoping to convince the US administration that Iran should take priority as the most serious security threat to the region.

At the same time, he has refused to endorse the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and won't agree to stop building in the settlements. The US administration is likely to push him on both points at today's White House meeting.

Bibi bowed to pressure on budget

The first big test of Netanyahu's premiership – passing Israel's budget proposal for 2010 – hasn't been a source of encouragement that he can stand his ground. Despite Netanyahu's conservative economic philosophy, he ordered the budget be revised to include more spending after the first draft of the fiscal proposal ran into heavy opposition from coalition allies.

"It seems to me staying in power is important to him," says Baskin. The left-right "coalition is evidence of that and the budget deal is evidence of that."

At the same time, Netanyahu is also aware that the life expectancy of Israeli governments can be truncated if a rift opens up with Israel's most important ally, the US. Many observers point to former prime minister Yitzhak Shamir, under whom Israeli relations soured with the Bush administration in 1991 after he refused to clamp down on settlement building. He was then voted out of office.

All those precedents of recent history has settlers worried.

"Netanyahu needs a warning," says Haetzni. "You are going to Washington into a fire, but don't forget there's a fire here, too. Because if you return here with two states you won't have a place to return to."

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