The White House has all but spelt it out. If Binyamin Netanyahu doesn’t commit himself to a two-state solution in his meeting with Barack Obama on Monday, he may as well save the airfare. Bibi is an astute enough observer of American politics to understand that this time, no amount of lobbying by congressional allies or senior Jewish Democrats is going to change the administration’s policy. He is going to have to find a way to deliver the goods.
But that is only half his problem. This week’s budget debate proved just how fragile his new coalition is. An official statement committing Israel to a Palestinian state will create an uproar, not only among right-wing partners, but a significant part of his own Likud. They will make his life a misery, just as they did Ariel Sharon’s four years ago. Netanyahu remembers that very clearly. He was one of Sharon’s chief tormentors.
A special team of ministers and senior advisers has been sitting in the Prime Minister’s Office for the past month, trying to come up with the magic formula.
Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, a senior member of the team, thinks he has the answer. In London this week, on the second leg of his grand European tour, Lieberman took his theory out for a test-drive.
Since at the moment there is no unified Palestinian leadership that Israel can entrust a state to, he argued, the only option is to offer the Palestinians a semi-state.
Allow them to run an autonomous territory, under the auspices of a larger country (such as Egypt?) and then see how it goes. Apparently it works in divided Cyprus. Not quite a two-state solution, perhaps one and three quarters.
But it is not yet clear whether this is the version Netanyahu will take with him to Washington. Right now it looks as if he will settle for anything that gets him an Oval Office pass to talk for five minutes about the Iranian threat.
Will it wash with Obama? Netanyahu will beg coalition problems and hope the president (unlike the Pope this week in Jerusalem) shows some compassion. But why should a president with unassailable majorities in both Congress and Senate be understanding?