Aluf Benn
The Guardian (Opinion)
May 17, 2011 - 12:00am

This week the Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu will fly to Washington on a diplomatic mission. His goal is formidable: pre-empting the "diplomatic tsunami" threatening Israel in September, the Palestinians' target date for declaring their internationally sanctioned statehood within the pre-1967 borders. Netanyahu wants to keep the US at his side while preserving the territorial status quo in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

The coming week's schedule of speeches and meetings is hectic. While Netanyahu is on the plane to the US, Barack Obama will deliver his much-anticipated Middle East speech, the sequel to his 2009 Cairo address. The next day he will host Netanyahu at the White House. After that, both will appear separately at the policy convention of Aipac, the pro-Israel lobby. And on Tuesday, Netanyahu will speak before a joint session of Congress, laying out his vision of Israeli-Palestinian peace. What to expect from all this activity; a diplomatic showdown? And if so, who will blink first?

Since Israel's capture of the occupied territories in 1967 its leaders have been guided by their fear of American pressure to withdraw. Netanyahu went through much diplomatic handwringing with President Bill Clinton during his first term, in the late 1990s. He eventually caved in to Clinton's demands, and was ousted by his rightwing coalition. "Bibi" learned the lesson: don't mess with your base or you'll lose your seat.

When Netanyahu returned to power two years ago, his mission was complicated by the parallel rise of Obama, who reached out to Arabs and Muslims, and Netanyahu interpreted these overtures as selling Israel out. More fundamentally, the two leaders differ on values. To the US president, Israel's occupation and settlement-building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem represent grave injustice. Obama cannot accept a system in which Jewish settlers enjoy political and human rights denied from their Palestinian neighbours. To Netanyahu, Jewish people have a birthright to the Judean and Samarian hills; at most, Israel should throw a bone to the Palestinians to satisfy its western supporters who, in Netanyahu's view, simply don't get it.

From their first meeting in May 2009, Netanyahu and Obama were on collision course. At first Obama – fresh from his electoral success – appeared to have the upper hand. Netanyahu talked about a "Palestinian state" and halted settlement expansion for 10 months. But the tide turned in Bibi's favour. He refused to extend the settlement moratorium, or negotiate the "core issues" of borders, Jerusalem, and refugees with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas – who jumped at the opportunity and boycotted talks until Israel halts the settlements.

Instead of pointlessly engaging Netanyahu, Abbas decided to pursue a UN resolution recognising Palestine. Obama cut his losses, keeping his envoy George Mitchell at home (Mitchell's formal resignation was announced last weekend). Then, in January, came another switch in the plot: the Arab revolution. Where Obama saw freedom, democracy, and a new dawn, Netanyahu saw trouble, instability, and the possible rise of an Iran-next-door in Egypt.

But the Arab spring has also brought opportunity for Israel. The uncertainty has drawn the US and Israel closer, regardless of the bad vibe between their leaders. Having lost two regional allies, Turkey and Egypt, Israel is more dependent on the US. With its Arab allies crumbling, the US needs Israel's military to stand up to Iran and its proxies.

Against this backdrop Netanyahu felt safe enough to "play the base". Rejecting pleas to announce an Israeli peace plan including a major West Bank withdrawal, he entrenched his old positions: the Arabs want to destroy Israel; Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas are incarnations of Hitler; any Israeli withdrawal would turn the West Bank into an Iranian rocket base. The Palestinian Hamas-Fatah unity deal was a PR boon: "Bibi" immediately announced the peace process over. And now, faced with growing isolation of Israel abroad, Netanyahu heads for Capitol Hill, thus sending a powerful message to Obama on the eve of his re-election campaign.

Obama, in turn, decided to use the Arab spring, and Osama bin Laden's assassination, to resume his charm offensive in the Middle East. There is much speculation about what he will say in his Mideast speech, but all indications are that – for now – he will only pay lip service to the two-state solution. His national security adviser, Tom Donilon, has already declared that Palestine must be established through negotiations – thus accepting Netanyahu's key demand and giving Israel a de facto veto on Palestinian independence. Netanyahu will probably get his standing ovation in Congress, and Obama will refrain from giving him a dressing down. Their showdown will be postponed; re-election takes precedence in Obama's mind.

But Netanyahu's diplomatic victory may be counterproductive. Reality is decided on the ground, not in Washington or New York. As the Nakba day protest across Israel's borders withSyria and Lebanon on Sunday – resulting in the death of several protesters – has shown, Palestinian frustration might well build into a third intifada, regardless of whether the Palestinians get UN recognition, and fight to implement it, or if their diplomatic gambit fails. And here lies Netanyahu's real problem: he can get the US on his side but he's got little to offer the Palestinians that might satisfy their quest for independence. Another round of Israeli-Palestinian conflict is therefore more likely as September approaches.


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