Tim McGirk
May 18, 2009 - 12:00am

Israel is a nation of worriers. No matter how pleasant the evening, at a certain point, after the jokes and well into the merlot from the Judaean hills, the worrying starts. No doubt, Israelis have plenty to worry about. They live between wars and must contend with Hamas, Hizballah and--the biggest anxiety of all--Iran, whose President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has said Israel should be "wiped off the map."

It was the worry factor that led to the re-election of Benjamin Netanyahu, the leader of the Likud Party, who took over as Prime Minister in March. The vote was begrudging. Netanyahu's first foray in that office, from 1996 to 1999, ended badly. He was lampooned as a brash know-it-all, arrogant and at the mercy of a wife who allegedly pelted the hired help with shoes. But Israelis were willing to forgive the ex-commando because Bibi, as he is known, was tough on security. That he remains, in particular when it comes to Iran. Aluf Benn, diplomatic correspondent for the daily Ha'aretz, says Netanyahu's "actions are shaped by a profound conviction that Israel will be in danger of extermination if Iran has nuclear weapons at its disposal."

Netanyahu wants Iran to be as much on President Barack Obama's mind as it is on his. On May 18, when the Israeli leader pays his first visit to the Obama White House, he will seek a pledge that the U.S. will do everything in its power--diplomatically, economically and perhaps militarily--to stop Iran from building nukes. Otherwise, Netanyahu is expected to drop the hint that Israel will take out Iran's nuclear installations by itself, regardless of the shock waves that would send through the world. A poll by Bar-Ilan University showed that 66% of Israelis support a military strike against Iran if all other efforts fail. Netanyahu himself draws parallels between the Holocaust and the specter of an Iranian bomb aimed at Tel Aviv.

That sort of doomsday rhetoric won't necessarily go down well with the White House. Iran's intentions worry the U.S. too, of course, but Obama and his advisers are expected to move briskly to an equally pressing matter: Netanyahu's refusal to back the idea of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. The two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the keystone of U.S. policy in the Middle East, and Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are demanding that Netanyahu sign on. Netanyahu has hinted that he does not oppose the creation of a Palestinian state, but aides say he must move cautiously because his religious-nationalist coalition partners refuse to give away land.

Netanyahu knows the U.S. well. His father taught Jewish history at Cornell University, and the Prime Minister graduated from MIT. His advisers say he has a weather eye for the mood in Washington and knows it is not as sunny as it used to be. Israeli officials have gauged that while Netanyahu can count on support from the Obama Administration and Congress, "it's no longer infinite," says an official at a pro-Israeli lobby in Washington. Obama is not George W. Bush, who backed Israel's wars in Lebanon and Gaza and rarely complained about the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. And the Obama Administration numbers plenty of ex-Clintonites who dislike Netanyahu from the last time around.

Banging the Drum

Netanyahu's friends say his decade in the political wilderness has matured him. He was adroit, for example, in stitching together a coalition that stretches from the right-wing Zionist and religious parties to Labor on the left. But a friend of Netanyahu's, the novelist Eyal Megged, says the Prime Minister's hard-line ideology has not mellowed. "He identifies with Churchill," says Megged, "as a defender of his country in times of peril."

Netanyahu's patriotism was forged by his days as an élite special-forces commando and by the death of his older brother Jonathan, who was killed while commanding the Entebbe raid in 1976 to rescue hijacked Israelis in Uganda. Yet for all his hawkishness, Netanyahu possesses a streak of realism. During his first term as Prime Minister, he turned Hebron over to Palestinians (though a contingent of militant Jewish settlers has taken root there, paralyzing life for many of the city's Palestinians). Tony Blair, the special envoy of the Quartet powers to the Middle East, was struck by Netanyahu's pragmatism when the two men met recently. Obama came away with a similar impression last July during a brief stop in Jerusalem. While shaking hands, he told Netanyahu, "I'm perceived as coming from the left, and you're perceived as coming from the right. But we're both more practical than people give us credit for."

Obama will accentuate the practical in Washington. Israelis say they expect him to argue that to bring the Arab world on board for sanctions against Iran--as Netanyahu wants--it will help if Israel fulfills its pledges to the Palestinians, by either freezing or removing Jewish settlements and reducing the checkpoints that cripple the movement of Palestinians inside the West Bank. Obama is expected to point out that U.S.-sponsored efforts to set up a professional Palestinian security force in the cities of Nablus, Hebron, Jenin and Jericho have restored a measure of calm. According to Israeli sources, Netanyahu will offer a familiar counterargument: with Hamas in control of Gaza and with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' popularity on the wane in the West Bank, Israel has no responsible partners among the Palestinians. "Netanyahu will tell Obama, why should he risk civil unrest--Israeli soldiers fighting Jewish settlers--if the Palestinians can't keep up their end of the bargain?" says a source close to Netanyahu's Cabinet. But that is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Abbas' credibility is sliding--and Hamas' gaining--because Israel is stalling on concessions to the Palestinians.

On Iran, Netanyahu and Obama may not be so far apart. Both Israel and the U.S. say negotiations with Iran must be explored before sanctions are imposed or, if all else fails, a military strike is authorized. But the two sides differ on their reading of Iran's timetable. Israeli security forces estimate that Iran will have enough enriched uranium for a nuclear test "within months," while U.S. experts say Iran will cross that threshold in early 2011. It will take Iran many more months, or perhaps years, to attach a nuclear warhead to a missile capable of hitting Israel, which has a formidable nuclear arsenal of its own.

In the meantime, Israel is upping the ante. In the lead-up to Netanyahu's Washington visit, Israeli newspapers have printed stories about the air force carrying out dry runs for an Iranian raid and antimissile crews having practice drills. If nothing else, this drum-banging may help Obama bring pressure to bear on Iran. Will Israelis then stop worrying? Nope. If you lived where they do, you'd worry too.


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