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Netanyahu and Obama in the White House (Photo: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

The timing is critical - smack in the middle of Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu's complex coalition consultations U.S. President Barack Obama announces a long overdue visit to Israel. Both the White House in Washington and Bibi's backers in Jerusalem are playing down any notion of a new U.S. peace initiative for Israel and the Palestinians. Perish the thought! But in international relations, actions speak louder than words.


Obama at the Western Wall in Jerusalem (during his first term)

 True, Obama is rectifying a grievous error made during his first term, and the U.S. leader answered grievously for it. Overly ambitious to cozy up to the Muslim world, Obama promptly flew to Cairo but not Jerusalem. In the most important capital in the Arab world, Obama demanded a halt to Israeli settlement building. Whether one favors settlements or abhors them, this put Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas into a diplomatic straightjacket: Abbas later contended that if the U.S. President had condemned Israel's settlements how could he ever agree to negotiate with Netanyahu? With the passage of time, Obama owned up to his diplomatic gaffe that possibly put the Israeli-Palestinian peace process into an even deeper deep-freeze. Now, at the start of his second term, Obama has announced his trip to Israel and the West Bank, and more power to him. His visit will improve his image in the eyes of some Israelis who suspect him as being pro-Palestinian. On the other hand, the Left-wingers like Barack far more than they do Bibi - the veteran Labor MK 'Fouad' Ben-Eliezer immediately called for Obama to address the Knesset. Even before the White House statement that Obama would not bring any new peace initiative, Bibi's supporters were quick to play down any notion that the U.S. President would present any new peace plan. On the contrary, Likud MK Zachi Hanegbi contended that Iran and Syria were far more important these days than the Palestinian issue. This would be an opportunity for Israel and the U.S. to compare notes at the highest level.


 So much for the prelude and the perception from the PM's office.

 However the very timing of the presidential visit speaks volumes. Netanyahu, who lost 25% of his support in last month's election, is now trying to cobble together a new coalition amid a battle royal between two diametrically opposed secular and ultra-orthodox camps. One of the lessons of Bibi's electoral loss was his abominable deal with the ultra-orthodox Shas and Aguda parties - he agreed that ultra-orthodox men be exempt from military service, that they be given government grants to not work but instead but study in religious seminaries all their lives; this while fathering an average of seven children who are also supported by government handouts. In return, the ultra-orthodox parties lent political support to Netanyahu and broke the tie between the Right and Center-Left on all the issues. (The ultra-orthodox men who have not done their IDF service contend they also help defend Israel through their religious studies. Some sixty-thousand of them are estimated to now be now towing IDF military duty. Labor also courted and paid off the ultra-orthodox parties for their support of the Oslo process but Bibi has carried this form of political extortion to new heights).  Yair Lapid, Israel's new contender for the premiership, cashed in on this ignominious state of affairs, by charging: "At age eight the ultra-orthodox religious boys do not study math or English, at eighteen they dodge the draft, and at age twenty-eight they do not support their families by going to work!". Netanyahu has finally wised up that Israeli society is fed up and now agrees there is an immediate need for 'equalizing the burden'. Shas, the biggest of the ultra-orthodox parties, realizes it must compromise but wants a new deal that will continue to grant public funding for the thousands of yeshivas while some of the young men do some kind of military or community service. The bottom line is that Netanyahu can count more on the ultra-orthodox parties than any other of his potential coalition partners who have strong ideological positions on the Palestinian issue. Lapid and Livni insist on an Israeli initiative to renew peace contacts with West Bank President, Mahmoud Abbas. As long as the ultra-orthodox get their public funding and draft exemptions, they will back Netanyahu to the hilt on just about everything else. Obviously Bibi will do all he can to get them in the coalition. But he also wants Lapid in order to give him some room to maneuver in the international arena where Abbas has launched a successful diplomatic intifada against Israel  that culminated on November 29, when the UN General Assembly granted non-member observer status for 'Palestine'. Not only Center-Left wing politicians but also some highly respected apolitical experts have been warning Netanyahu that he must initiate steps to show he means business about a two-state solution with the Palestinians. Gen. (res.) Amos Yadlin, a former chief of IDF Intelligence, and Prof. Yehezkel Dror, are among them. Recently, an assembly of Israel's ambassadors abroad voiced unprecedented criticism of settlement building announcements after the General Assemby vote. On Feb. 2nd, the main headline in Haaretz was that Gen. (res.) Yaacov Ami Dror, the head of the National Defense Council and a close aide to the PM, also warned that settlement building was losing international support for Israel.


President Mahmoud Abbas (Photo: Amit Shabi)

 This appears to be the singular conclusion with consequences for Israel: the announcement of Obama's coming, even without a new peace plan, signals to Israel and the Arabs that the U.S. President is still interested in moving on the Israeli-Palestinian track. What else is he going to talk about with President Abbas in Ramallah - Iran and Syria? Moreover, the European Union has already announced that it wants to initiate some peace moves of its own. Connect the dots and what appears is Obama again 'leading from behind'. It also brings to mind, if you like, the Hebrew expression "For the just, their work is done by others".


 Bringing the wheel full circle...

Tzipi Livni - Hatnua, Yair Lapid - Yesh Atid, Shaul Mofaz - Kadima

 So the new Netanyahu government may face an international juggernaut soon after it takes office. The PM will need room to maneuver diplomatically while the election outcome demands a new deal for middle class Israelis that includes recruiting some of the ultra-orthodox into the IDF and getting them to go to work. Obviously Netanyahu needs Lapid, who supports a more activist diplomacy abroad and societal change at home. If Lapid is in, Livni and Mofaz should not be far behind. That would give Netanyahu a tantalizing total of 58 on the way to a sixty-one seat majority in the 120 member Knesset. That leaves the fifteen seats of both far Right Naftali Bennet and ultra-orthodox Shas. Bennett is categorically opposed to carving up the Land of Israel into a two-state solution while Shas vows to man the barricades to fight the recruiting of all ultra-orthodox men into the IDF. How does Bibi get over the hump and forge his 'broad based' coalition that has such built-in contradictions? This could be the way out: if Bennett believes the chances are zero to none that even the moderate Abbas will ever accept Israel as a Jewish state or agree to a demilitarized Palestine, then the far-Right has nothing to fear because there will be no territorial compromise anyway. If per chance there is a compromise supported by Lapid, Livni, Mofaz and maybe even Bibi himself, the government would break up by calling a snap election that would serve as a national referendum - the Israeli people would decide whether to accept it or not.

David Essing

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