Netanyahu: Master Maneuverer

In the days leading up to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s first visit to Washington, a mini-drama, of sorts, has been playing out.

The Obama Administration has made clear its intention to achieve a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and is pressing the Israeli Prime Minister to accept this formula for peace. But because this is an outcome that Netanyahu has, up until now, been loathe to accept, he is using the time leading up to his first visit to Washington, to maneuver for position. It will be a steep hill for him to climb, because the Administration, has been sending repeated signals indicating its concern.

Secretary of State Clinton, for example, has been critical of Israeli settlement building in the West Bank and of home demolition in East Jerusalem. According to reports, she was deeply troubled by conditions she witnessed on the West Bank (the wall, checkpoints, and choking of Palestinian communities). In congressional testimony, she echoed the Administration’s view that U.S. assistance to the Palestinians should continue in the advent of a unity government, with the proviso that the individual members of that government respect the Quartet conditions. And she cleverly turned the tables on Netanyahu, who had been insisting on an “Iran First” approach, when she told a congressional hearing that ” for Israel to get the kind of strong support it is looking for vis-à-vis Iran, it can’t stay on the sidelines with respect to the Palestinians and the peace efforts. They go hand in hand.”

For his part, Rahm Emmanuel, the President’s Chief of Staff, has also been quite clear. Last month, in comments to Yedioth Ahronoth, Emmanuel said that “In the next four years there is going to be a permanent status arrangement between Israel and the Palestinians on the basis of two states for two peoples, and it doesn’t matter to us at all who is prime minister.”

This week, in remarks to AIPAC’s annual conference, he sounded quite firm in cautioning that “this is the moment of truth for Israel and the Palestinians.”

To make matters even clearer for the Israeli Prime Minister, General James Jones, Obama’s National Security Advisor, last week told a senior E.U. official that “the new administration will convince Israel to compromise on the Palestinian question” and that, “we would not push Israel under the wheels of a bus, but we will be more forceful toward Israel than we have under Bush.”

And to let Israel know that there are broader US goals in the Middle East, the Administration recently denied Israel access to sensitive information required to repair computer systems for the US made (F-35) Joint Strike Fighter. More shocking still, to Israelis, was the unmistakable message sent by Assistant Secretary of State Rose Gottemoeller when she noted that Israel–”together with North Korea, India and Pakistan–”should be pressed to ratify the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, thus ending the special exemption US Presidents have historically given to Israel.

So what is Netanyahu to do?

If history can provide any guidance, he will maneuver.

Recall that when Netanyahu was first elected Prime Minister in 1996, he had pledged to end the peace process. Facing pressure from the Clinton Administration to continue negotiations, he countered with conditions of his own, in an effort to distort or abort the process. Clinton persisted, and when invited to participate in negotiations at Wye Plantation, Netanyahu, at first, balked.

At that time, famed Israeli peace activist, Uri Avnery, predicted that in response to this invitation, Netanyahu would do one of three things: not go; go and not sign an agreement; or sign an agreement and then continue to maneuver to find a way not to implement it. He took the latter course. Even after the agreement had been reached, he continued to maneuver, suggesting a new condition be added–”the freedom for convicted Israeli spy, Jonathan Pollard–”a move that reportedly angered the U.S. President and was dismissed.

Now as he begins his second stint as Prime Minister, Netanyahu is facing new pressures–”to agree to a “two-state solution”–”and he is acting true to form. First, he is setting up his own conditions: first, we must deal with Iran; first the P.A. must defeat the terror organizations; first, we must improve the Palestinian economy, etc. He is also developing a fall-back position for when the inevitable occurs and he must accept a Palestinian state. In Netanyahu’s playbook, that means accepting it as either a “grand gesture” or a “painful compromise,” but then proceeding to define the “state” he accepts in a way that is unrecognizable and, therefore, unacceptable to the Palestinians.

Watch this play out, and, especially, watch for the President’s response. Despite the signals sent by others and the maneuverings of the Israeli Prime Minister, in this mini-drama, it is Obama who will write the final scene.