JERUSALEM — Has Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu got the Obama message? To judge by his minimalist response to President Barack Obama’s landmark Cairo University address and his continuing reluctance to meet Obama’s demand for a total freeze on Israeli settlements, the answer would seem to be, "No."
It’s a mighty challenge for Netanyahu to counter, especially since he roots his political strategy in an exclusivist vision of what suits only a small percentage of Israelis, the 300,000 settlers in the West Bank, and in a policy that insists on Israel being allowed to go on building more homes in Palestinian territory.
The depth of Netanyahu’s distress is in direct proportion to the breadth of the Obama vision for the Middle East, and its spillover into global relations between the U.S. and the Muslim world. But the lack of inspiration shown thus far by the Israeli leader and his ministers can hardly conceal their understanding that the Obama challenge won’t be easily shrugged off.
Netanyahu announced at his weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday that he will give what he defined as "a major policy speech" next week at Bar Ilan University, a Jewish religious university in Tel Aviv, when he would map out Israel’s "principles for achieving peace and security."
What Netanyahu has to say will have to take into account a major development beyond Israel’s borders — the victory in Sunday’s Lebanese parliamentary elections of the pro-western alliance over the pro-Iranian, pro-Syrian, Hezbollah-led coalition.
"After many years of radical forces gaining ground in the Arab world, perhaps this represents a total turnabout and the resurgence of the pragmatic elements," Tzahi Hanegbi told IPS. Hanegbi is a leading figure in the center-right Kadima opposition party, but is known to be a close confidant of Netanyahu.
An Israeli government source added: "We understand that what happened in Lebanon is a clear indication that the Obama effect has already begun to influence domestic national politics all over the region."
Netanyahu is also under pressure from his defense minister Ehud Barak to take a conciliatory stance on the two-state solution, and to reiterate his commitment to the principles of the road map, the U.S.-backed 2003 plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace.
Barak has told Netanyahu that in his meetings in Washington last week U.S. officials gave him "the distinct impression" that if Netanyahu removes his opposition to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, that would make it easier for Israel and the U.S. to reach an agreement over the bitter dispute on settlements.
Barak has also instructed security officials to reassess the tight Israeli siege of the Gaza Strip. This comes after Obama, in his Cairo address, criticized the "continuing humanitarian crisis" in Gaza and the devastating effect of the Israeli blockade on Palestinian families which, the President stressed, does not serve Israel’s security interests.
On the other hand, Netanyahu is subject to counter pressure from hardliners within his coalition. They are urging him not just to stand pat on Israel’s "right" to go on with more settlement building, but to allocate additional funding to the settlers so as to ensure that Israel consolidates its hold on the area.
In its Monday editorial, the liberal Ha’aretz noted that Netanyahu’s natural right-wing political allies "will threaten to remove him from power if he says ‘Yes’ to Obama. Netanyahu must not be alarmed," the paper wrote. "This is his moment to prove that he is a statesman of historic vision, capable of going beyond his outdated political platform and able to take advantage of opportunities rather than to miss them because of his political fears."
The conflicting approaches within the Netanyahu government could come to a head when Obama’s special envoy, Senator George Mitchell, returns to the area in the middle of the week for meetings that will aim to begin translating the Obama approach into practical policy.
But it is Netanyahu’s speech next Sunday that will be the clearest pointer about where he intends to lead Israel — in tune with the U.S., or at dissonance with the Obama message.
Ahead of his address, Netanyahu contented himself with platitudes: "I would like to make it clear that we seek peace with the Palestinians and the Arab world, while trying to reach the greatest possible understanding with the United States and the international community. I aspire to achieve a stable peace, while leaning on the foundations of security for the State of Israel and its citizens."
A leading Israeli political commentator, Ben Caspit, writes in the Tel Aviv tabloid, Maariv: "Netanyahu opted to squander his period of grace on meaningless ‘reassessment’ meetings. He is now going to have to be particularly creative if he wants to renew trust between the U.S. and Israel."
He will have to go further than that.
During his run for the White House, Barack Obama disclosed that a book that helped him focus on priorities during the rigors of campaigning was Netherland, a novel by Joseph O’Neill dealing with life in New York post-9/11. A central character is one Chuck Ramkissoon, an immigrant from Trinidad, who dreams of transforming his adopted nation by bringing cricket to the American masses, a visionary who favors epithets like "Think Fantastic".
If he wants to create a counter momentum with his own university address, Netanyahu will have to do what, in his vision, would be "fantastic": Instead of continuing to transform the West Bank into "Settlerland," an extension of Israel, he will finally have to agree with the President’s vision — transform Israel itself by transforming the West Bank into "Palestine."
(Inter Press Service)