Make or break for Bibi

By Anshel Pfeffer, June 11, 2009

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will deliver his most important policy speech to date on Sunday, outlining his government’s plans for peace.

Few details have been leaked, but speculation is rife that he will discuss the future of the settlements and the Palestinian Authority, as well as relations with Arab countries.

It is unclear whether he will formally endorse a two-state solution — a formulation he has avoided in the past.

The Americans are pressuring him to freeze West Bank settlement construction and endorse Palestinian statehood.But his right-wing coalition partners have so far resisted, and are mounting their own aggressive campaign against the policies. On every flat surface along the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway, posters scream the slogan: “If there is an uprooting, there is no coalition.”

The threat is clear. The right is warning the Prime Minister that if he capitulates to American pressure and commits Israel to the formation of a Palestinian state, he can wave his government goodbye.

The posters are just the tip of the iceberg. Mr Netanyahu’s schedule was filled this week with meetings with political allies from the right. Ministers, Knesset members, settler leaders, all of them were cajoling him to stand strong and remain loyal to his ideological credentials.

But they already know that they are fighting what looks like a losing battle. If Mr Netanyahu had not already decided to go along with President Barack Obama’s wishes, at least in part, he would not be in such a rush to try to allay their fears.

Mr Netanyahu is not going to have much of a Shabbat, as most of Saturday will be occupied with writing and rewriting. Pundits expect a speech heavy on biblical pathos, Jewish destiny and allegiance to Zionist ideals.

But beneath all the layers of hyperbole will probably lie a hard kernel of reality, a reaffirmation of Israel’s commitment to the Road Map and the understanding that it means a freeze on most settlement activity and, at the end of that road, a Palestinian state.

Over the past few weeks, Mr Obama has made it clear to the Israelis that, if they are not on board with his peace initiative, they will suffer the consequences and, by all accounts, Mr Netanyahu has decided not to jeopardise Israel’s greatest strategic asset. But if that will indeed be the real message of his speech, which he will deliver at Bar Ilan University, Mr Netanyahu will have rendered his coalition obsolete, only two-and-a-half months after its formation.

There is no linguistic formulation that can satisfy Mr Obama and reassure the coalition’s right wing. There are simply not enough words in the dictionary. If Mr Netanyahu is prepared to embark upon a new diplomatic process after making these concessions, the uprising within Likud is ensured. The brave commando from the 1972 Sabena rescue will have become a hostage within his own Cabinet. Mr Obama cifically suspects that White House Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, is the devious mind behind all of this — have manipulated him into this situation.

If he wants to stay in power while remaining persona grata in Washington, he will have to jettison part of his current coalition and find a way of bringing in centrist Kadima, or at least a significant number of the party’s MKs instead.

Meanwhile, the American administration is upping the ante.
Although the diplomatic relations between the two countries are going through their worst period since the days of George Bush Sr, the ties between the Pentagon and Israel’s defence establishment have never been warmer.

Despite public talks of differences over how to deal with Iran, there is a high level of co-ordination in intelligence exchanges and joint planning regarding the Persian threat.

The Americans have guaranteed funding for Israel’s new anti-ballistic missile system over the next three years and are training new Palestinian security forces which, for the first time ever, are seriously taking on Hamas.

The Americans are doing everything to show that while they are still Israel’s friends, all this co-operation could be at risk.

Mr Netanyahu has tried everything, played for time, worked all his charms in the Oval Office, mobilised the Aipac lobby and Israel’s other allies in Washington, but Mr Obama has called each of his bluffs.
The new president is just too popular, too insistent. On Sunday in Bar Ilan, Mr Netanyahu will try to find the most gracious way to concede defeat — and then run for cover.

Last updated: 9:41am, June 12 2009