The U.S. president was furious over Israel's stubborn negotiating stance and wrote a harsh letter to the prime minister. Israel is endangering peace, the president warned, and if it continued to reject friendly counsel, the U.S. government would have to reassess its position on Israel.
The president was Harry Truman, the prime minister - David Ben-Gurion. The dispute was over Israel's refusal to take back Palestinian refugees after the War of Independence. At the heart of the American-led reconciliation conference in Lausanne, Switzerland, was the Arab demand for the refugees' return.
Israel did not want the refugees back, but neither did it want a crisis with the United States. The foreign minister at the time, Moshe Sharett, persuaded Ben-Gurion to throw the Americans a bone: Israel would announce its willingness to take back 100,000 refugees in return for full peace. If the Arabs refused, as expected, they would be blamed for the talks' failure. Israel had made clear this was a final offer, but Sharett was worried that the United States would not be satisfied.
Seeking to show how difficult this offer would be politically in Israel, Ben-Gurion and Sharett brought it to the Knesset for debate, making it public after conveying it to the Americans. Sharett instructed lawmakers from the ruling party to oppose the offer. The show was flawless: Speakers from both the coalition and opposition attacked the government, no vote was taken and no real price paid.
This affair has long been forgotten, but the dynamics have not changed. Today, too, a prime minister is facing off against an American president with a burning desire for achievements in the peace process; one who sees Israel as obdurate. Benjamin Netanyahu wants to find a way to assuage Barack Obama's anger without paying any real price. His solution, like Ben-Gurion's 60 years ago, is to voice solutions that change nothing on the ground and highlight his political risk.
Netanyahu needs "rebels" in the Likud Knesset faction and coalition to show Obama how hard even a concession on paper would be, such as agreeing to a Palestinian state. If Benny Begin, Tzipi Hotovely and Danny Danon did not exist, they would have to be invented. Like Ben-Gurion, Netanyahu wants opposition, but is taking no real risk.
When he finishes his address Sunday night at Bar-Ilan University's Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, there will be no vote. Likud rebels in the past who opposed Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon were against change created by the withdrawals from Sinai and Gaza, and voted against the government. That's not the case now.
If there are no surprises in the speech, Netanyahu will retreat from positions he has held for many years, but there will be no real change on the ground. Netanyahu's success will be measured by the White House's response. If Obama is satisfied, Netanyahu will have succeeded. If not, Netanyahu will have to write another speech.
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