Netanyahu caught between Obama, Israeli settlers

Moshe Milner/Reuters
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (r.) and his wife, Sara, walk off an airplane after arriving in Washington on Sunday.
Joshua Mitnick
A bus advertisement reads in Hebrew, 'Bibi! Protect the Land of Israel. For us and the future generations. History will remember you as a strong leader that didnt surrender or cave in.' Settlers in Israel have become worried that Netanyahu may give concessions to the Palestinians while in Washington for a meeting with President Barack Obama.

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.

"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."

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."

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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