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Netanyahu's make-or-break speech to Congress

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, long criticized for being passive and reactionary, is under pressure to exhibit the Zionist legacy of risk-taking and initiative in his address to Congress today.

By Correspondent / May 24, 2011

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's speech before Congress today follows his address last night at the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference in Washington on May 23.

Jason Reed/Reuters

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Tel Aviv

Four days after publicly spurning President Obama's vision for ending the Israeli-Arab conflict, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is under pressure from supporters and critics alike to present an alternative plan for peace as he addresses a joint session of US Congress.

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In the shadow of regional change, Mr. Netanyahu has been attacked for taking a passive, reactive stance that favors his own political survival over meaningful progress with the Palestinians. Now, with Palestinians gaining momentum on a United Nations vote to establish a Palestinian state without Israel's approval, his country faces a growing threat of isolation and attacks on its legitimacy.

Many see Netanyahu's speech today as an opportunity to take the diplomatic initiative, tapping into an Israeli legacy of risk-taking, initiative, and creativity that stretches from the country's founding fathers to today's technology entrepreneurs. That spirit – summed up in Zionist leader Theodore Herzl's phrase, "If you will it, it is no dream" – has been seen in everything from preemptive military attacks to a unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

"The basic premise of Zionism is that the Jews need to take responsibility for their fate, and what distinguishes Israelis from Jews in the past is that we can be masters of our destiny," says Yossi Klein Halevy, a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute.

"To say that there is nothing for Israel to do to improve its situation is to commit an act of heresy against Zionism, and so some Israelis see Netanyahu’s seeming paralysis as a negation of the national ethos," he adds.

'Start-Up Nation,' or stagnant nation?

The criticism is mostly heard from Israeli doves, but there have also been some on the right who have said that, instead of just blaming the Palestinians for setting preconditions for peace talks, Mr. Netanyahu needs to come forward with his own vision.

Erel Margalit, an Israeli venture capitalist who is running for the leadership of the opposition Labor Party, said Netanyahu should look to former Israeli prime ministers like David Ben Gurion – who accepted a 1947 UN plan to partition Palestine into two states – and Ariel Sharon who unilaterally withdrew from the Gaza Strip.

"We are considered a 'Start-Up Nation,' " says Mr. Margalit, referring to the recent New York Times bestseller about Israel's entrepreneurial spirit. "But Netanyahu is turning us into a stagnant nation."

"The Arab Spring is not just a threat but it's also bringing hope to the Middle East," he adds. "Israel needs to go back to being proactive rather than reactive."

Hints of a new concession, but hesitance, too

"Anyone who has played chess knows the advantage of being one step ahead," says an Israeli official. "But there is a debate in Israel about whether we should or whether we can take an initiative vis-à-vis the Palestinians."

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