Benjamin Netanyahu's victory trip to Washington after winning the 1996 elections was the most surreal excursion by any Israeli prime minister to America. Netanyahu took not only his wife and children on that trip, but also a large group of Likud activists.
While Netanyahu visited the White House and Congress, his political advisor led the party people on tour in a bus. Not impressed by the sites and architecture, they demanded that he take them shopping.
Netanyahu's visit was only for two days, but he drew attention in every way possible. He held a joint news conference with President Bill Clinton, gave a speech to both Houses of Congress, in which he surprisingly renounced America's financial assistance to Israel, made a heavily covered appearance in the National Press Club, and held a large dinner at the embassy. He had good reason to celebrate - he had defeated Shimon Peres, Clinton's favorite, in the elections, and came to tell the Americans that they must change their attitude.
From Washington the entourage went to New York, where the Netanyahu family stayed at the luxury Stanhope Hotel on Fifth Avenue, facing Central Park. The media had a field day - newspapers sent correspondents to escort the "royal family," including their walk in Central Park.
Today Netanyahu begins his first visit to Washington in a completely different setting. The small entourage consists of Sara and a few aides - no politicians, no party activists and no children. The timetable resembles Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert's short work visits in Washington: No speeches, large dinners or press conferences, except for a short standard photo-op with President Barack Obama in the White House.
The prime minister has matured. He is less extroverted than when he first rose to power. But despite the packaging difference, the content is similar. In 2009, as in 1996, Netanyahu wants to show that he can come to the White House, voice his known stances from his days in the opposition and campaign trail, and remain in one piece. Again he will be hosted by a president who wants to accelerate the peace process, while Netanyahu will ask him to slow down. In Clinton's days Netanyahu spoke of "reciprocity" in relations with the Palestinians. Now he is demanding that the Palestinians recognize Israel as the Jewish people's nation-state.
Clinton didn't like Netanyahu, who he saw as an arrogant man and a political rival. But despite the strained relations the Clinton administration led Netanyahu to signing two agreements with Yaser Arafat - the Hebron agreement and the Wye River Memorandum. The three Israeli prime ministers of the past decade did not achieve such a crop of political agreements.
The lesson is clear: It's not what Netanyahu tells the cameras at the White House tomorrow that matters, but what he does when he returns. His positions and beliefs are no obstacle to his decisions. He is capable of renouncing things he has said, as he showed in last week's budget debates. He will not jeopardize Israel's relations with America by having a vociferous conflict with Obama.
Obama issued several firm messages before Netanyahu's visit, conveying dissatisfaction with the new Israeli government's stances. He will make it clear that he will not give up the "two-state solution" and Israel must to toe the American line on the Iranian issue, not the other way around. Netanyahu will try to convince Obama to adjust the process' pace to his coalition's absorption ability.
Their meeting tomorrow should be seen as the first step in a long process, in which Obama will try to drag Netanyahu into a deal with the Palestinians and dismantle West Bank settlements. Netanyahu will seek a hard American line on Iran, and a resumption of political and security coordination between Israel and the U.S.
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