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Beyond the Gaza blockade: What drives Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu?

Benjamin Netanyahu's handling of the Gaza blockade flotilla crisis has further isolated Israel in the world and strained relations with Washington. Can a tough nationalist emerge as a statesman?

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Indeed, fending off foes at home and abroad has long been Netanyahu's forte. In the past, that acumen in assessing threats has sometimes translated into a siege mentality in which Netanyahu was portrayed in the Israeli media as mistrustful and paranoid. (In a 1997 interview with the Monitor, he opened with the words, "OK, shoot to kill.")

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It's a theme that replays itself over and over again. Netanyahu has taken the world's questions about the legality and morality of Israel's naval blockade on Gaza and morphed it into an international assault on Israel's right to self-defense and, by default, right to exist. "Today," Netanyahu told an elite army unit he visited on June 8, "Israel's very right to defend itself is under attack."

This March came in like a lion: The visit of US Vice President Joe Biden was derailed by an embarrassing announcement that Israel would build housing for several thousand Jews in East Jerusalem. It did not go out like a lamb. Things worsened when Netanyahu, during a visit with President Obama, got a palpably cold shoulder at the White House.

But the "tough love" – a term many veteran Middle East policymakers in Washington have come to use as a catchphrase for taking a firmer hand toward Israeli ambivalence and foot-dragging – got perhaps too rough and backfired. Members of Congress, and pillars of the American-Jewish community such as Elie Wiesel, began to chastise the administration for taking too harsh an approach and alienating Israel.

Other things began looking up for Netanyahu as well. In April, he survived a serious challenge from within his own Likud Party. In May, Israel was accepted to join the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a major nod toward Netanyahu's economic reforms. Long-sought Israeli-Palestinian proximity talks finally began.

Then, in mid-May, Mr. Obama told members of Congress that he'd made some missteps entering the Middle East minefield and, he joked, might have lost a few fingers. Underscoring Washington's move to mend fences, Obama's chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, hand-delivered an invitation for a White House meeting ahead of Obama's parley with Mr. Abbas. Those given to gloating said Bibi had wrestled with the giant and won – or at least had not been cowed. Those given to more diplomatic language said it was a sign of accepting that Netanyahu is here to stay.

"Perhaps there were hopes in Washington at one point of a different government constellation, one that would include the Kadima Party," says Zalman Shoval, a veteran Likud member, former Israeli ambassador to the US, and head of the prime minister's Forum on US-Israel Relations. "They realize now that this is not going to happen. The coalition is very solid, at least at present, and they have to deal with him whether they like it or not. So they decided to warm up the relationship."