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New op-ed: Netanyahu faces stark choice

Here is my new op-ed, published in today's edition of the Washington Jewish Week:

Netanyahu faces stark choice

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

by Ori Nir

Special to WJW

Israel's new-old Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is facing a hard choice following his thorny, sour visit to Washington, D.C.

He can continue opposing the two-state solution, go on building settlements in the West Bank, continue to oppose a meaningful peace process with Syria and continue to view a comprehensive regional peace deal with the Arab world as a threat or a ploy rather than an opportunity. Or, he can choose to change his dogmatic positions and cooperate with President Barack Obama's efforts to bring peace to Israel and its neighbors.

If he chooses to do the latter, Netanyahu will jeopardize his hard-line, right-wing coalition government.

If, however, he chooses to be an obstacle to peace, Netanyahu will jeopardize Israel's chief national security asset: its relationship with the United States. And he will be doing so at a critical time: when the two allies need to cooperate on addressing the Iranian challenge.

Netanyahu is not the first Israeli prime minister facing this dilemma. He himself did, albeit to a lesser extent, during his first term in office, when he faced pressure from the Clinton administration.

In the past, Israeli prime ministers developed various tactics to reduce the pressure. They used a variety of stalling techniques. They pitted one member of the administration against others. They complained about coalition pressures. They winked and nodded, saying one thing and doing another. They tried to shift the agenda to distract the administration. They begged and pleaded and sometimes even threatened. And, most effectively, they leveraged Congress against the executive branch, a tactic that often proved successful.

Well, not in Obama's Washington.

Reports from both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, as well as from Israeli officials and journalists, say that Netanyahu was shocked to learn how hard it will be to manipulate this U.S. administration. President Obama very much wants to achieve comprehensive, regional Middle East peace. He declared repeatedly that he views this goal as a key national security objective and he has done almost everything possible to demonstrate that he is serious. He has little tolerance for winks and nods. He's a straightforward, businesslike, can-do kind of politician.

Netanyahu must have guessed what is awaiting him at the White House. What he apparently failed to realize until his visit last week to Washington was how deeply things have changed on Capitol Hill. According to reports from all three meetings Netanyahu held with groups of legislators in Congress, he was repeatedly grilled on West Bank settlements. Many of his interlocutors on Capitol Hill were underwhelmed by his arguments. When asked about settlements, he clumsily replied that settlements were not the issue, but the Palestinian refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

What Netanyahu fails to understand, congressional leaders and their staffers say, is that this overwhelmingly Democratic Congress is determined to do whatever it can to support the policies of a popular Democratic president. If Netanyahu is seeking allies in Congress to undercut presidential policies, he may find several marginal minority members in both houses. But congressional Democrats, including Israel's closest friends on the Hill, will not play that game.

These congressional leaders increasingly seem to share the view that to be a true friend of Israel means to support the two-state solution, the only viable scenario that will allow Israel to live long-term in peace and security as a Jewish and democratic state. The two-state solution is the standard in Obama's Washington, and the settlements -- a key obstacle to reaching that solution -- are as unacceptable to Congress as they are to the president.

This is a moment of truth not only for Netanyahu but also for American supporters of Israel. This moment is not about supporting one leader against the other. It is about asserting our vision of Israel. Do we want to see a de facto binational state, a garrison state, an undemocratic state that gradually turns into a pariah internationally, or do we want to see a just, democratic state, with a solid Jewish majority, which lives in peace and security with all its neighbors and with the entire Arab world?

Obama's Washington is offering an unprecedented opportunity to realize the vision of an Israel we can all be proud of. Let's help Israel take advantage of that opportunity.

Ori Nir is the spokesperson for Americans for Peace Now.

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