Politics: Between Barack and a hard place

Netanyahu must stop US-Israel relations from crumbling while staying loyal to coalition, Likud, himself.

netanyahu listens to obama 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
netanyahu listens to obama 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is spending the weekend putting the final touches on the long-awaited diplomatic policy address he will deliver on Sunday night at Bar-Ilan University's Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. It won't be the first speech in which he has to explain his views on how the diplomatic process with the Palestinians could move forward, and it certainly won't be the last, but it will be one of the most scrutinized. When he met with Likud MKs at the Prime Minister's Office on Wednesday, they recommended he make the following comments they said had been written by an orator whom they admired and trusted: "In any future agreement, if and when we get that far, I see self-rule in which the Palestinians will have the freedom to rule themselves, but to establish a state, with everything that that concept entails, with all the powers I have enumerated, which would endanger Israel's existence - that no. Self-rule - yes! A state - no! We are told that a Palestinian state is the vision of the future. Okay, our nation also has a vision for the future: 'And the wolf will lie down with the lamb.' And when that vision is realized in the Middle East, we will be willing to discuss the subject once again," the orator had said. Those words, clearly ruling out the establishment of a Palestinian state until the arrival of the messiah, were delivered in May 2002 by a private businessman who, at the time, was unencumbered by any governmental position that would prevent him from saying what he really believed. The speech was to the Likud central committee. The orator was none other than Binyamin Netanyahu. Sounding very similar to Bennie Begin in his address to veteran Likud activists on Wednesday, Netanyahu then added back in 2002: "The Likud has always been firmly opposed to the establishment of a Palestinian state in the heart of our homeland. This opposition has appeared in every Likud platform in election campaigns, including the most recent one. That is what we went to the voters with, and that is what we got their mandate for. And all Likud leaders are committed to that mandate." SOURCES CLOSE to Netanyahu made clear this week that he would not adamantly rule out the formation of a Palestinian state in his speech on Sunday, specifically citing the May 2002 address as an example of what he would not say. But they also promised that he would remain consistent with his longtime beliefs, and he would not make the transformation that former prime minister Ariel Sharon made from hawk to dove. They said Netanyahu knows consistency is the key to his credibility, and he doesn't want to repeat the mistakes of other politicians. For an example of inconsistency, they would have to look no further than the president of the United States, Barack Obama, who sounded very different in Cairo last week from the candidate who wooed Jewish voters at last June's AIPAC policy conference in Washington and a month later on his visit to Sderot. "The United States must be a strong and consistent partner in this process - not to force concessions, but to help committed partners avoid stalemate and the kind of vacuums that are filled by violence," Obama told cheering AIPAC advocates. "That's what I commit to do as president of the United States." Similarly, in Sderot, he pledged that he would not pressure Israel to make concessions, as he has done since assuming the presidency. "My job and my team's job is not to dictate to either of the parties what this deal should be," Obama told reporters there. Netanyahu knew when he took office that he would spend much of his time planning strategy for dealing with a difficult adversary. But he thought his antagonist would be the president of Iran, not the president of the US. Chances are he never would have pondered getting to the stage where one of his ministers would give him an 11-page report outlining possible sanctions that Israel could take against the US to avenge policies seen as anti-Israel, as Minister-without-Portfolio Yossi Peled did this week. IT IS now up to Netanyahu to ensure that American-Israeli relations stop hemorrhaging, and that's what he will try to do on Sunday. But it won't be easy doing that while remaining loyal to his coalition partners, the anti-Palestinian-state majority in his Likud faction and, most importantly, to himself. Netanyahu's associates said that when he formed his government, he didn't think it would be too hard for him to bridge the gaps between Labor chairman Ehud Barak on the left and Israel Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman on the right. And it really hasn't been. Barak and Lieberman have actually sounded similar recently. They've both urged Netanyahu to endorse the road map diplomatic plan, for different reasons. But the prime minister's aides acknowledged that the real coalition Netanyahu has to keep satisfied includes a White House that Meretz leaders have boasted could be the Washington branch of their party. Could any Israeli leader balance a coalition that includes a Shas chairman who recently decided to become the champion of the settlers and Meretz? It sounds like mission impossible. But the people closest to Netanyahu said he was confident that he could do it. "The prime minister has to express the broadest possible consensus in Israel," one Netanyahu adviser said. "When he represents that consensus, the world will have to accommodate that reality. Positions accepted by a consensus of Israelis are the most understandable to the world. I think Israel's friends will stand by her on those issues." While that adviser seemed to downplay the threat to Netanyahu from the international community when addressing the gap between Obama and the Israeli Right, another played down the political threat from inside. "Netanyahu, over the years, has been consistent in his beliefs and what he thinks is best for the country," the adviser said. "He has made clear that the challenges are numerous, and all these things have to be taken into consideration. When that's understood by the coalition partners, it makes it easier to bridge the gap." Chances are that both advisers are correct, and that both the American administration and the Israeli coalition are going to have to take a step back and allow Netanyahu to outline a vision somewhere in between. As one political observer said this week: "It's not easy being prime minister of Israel, especially when you are caught between Barack and a hard place."