Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu returned from the United States yesterday with egg all over his face but also with a painfully sharp insight - gone are the days when the White House was considerate about the intricacies of Israeli domestic politics.
Former prime ministers used to tell American presidents, "Understand, I have a problematic coalition." This no longer works. Obama is not making any effort to show sensitivity to Netanyahu's distress and worse - he's ignoring it as though he intends to wreak some political chaos here.
"Obama isn't only sticking the knife in," a minister said, "he's twisting it and enjoying it."
Shock treatment, a senior Likud figure said yesterday about Netanyahu's experience in Washington. If it changed him, Netanyahu will soon have to make a strategic decision whose importance cannot be overestimated. He will not be able to make this decision in the seven ministers' forum, with people like Benny Begin, Moshe Ya'alon, Avigdor Lieberman and Eli Yishai.
Netanyahu will face the dilemma Ariel Sharon faced in the autumm of 2005, when he quit Likud and formed Kadima to carry out the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. He will have to ask Tzipi Livni to join him in forming a new government without his "natural" partners, Shas or Lieberman. A government with new, different guidelines and a totally different coalition balance of power.
It is doubtful if he can and wants to do so, but slim as the chance is, Bibi may yet surprise us - and himself.
Some of his associates are pressing him to take the leap, create a political big bang and go for the Kadima option. They are in the minority. But the alternative is much more worrying, not to say horrifying. If he intends to continue his game of stalling, foot-dragging, hemming and hawing, he could find himself with no working coalition before autumn. He will be facing a sharp rift with the United States, a standstill vis-a-vis the Palestinians and possibly deteriorating security. Labor won't be able to remain in the coalition. All Labor's ministers except Barak speak openly and shamelessly today about when to quit. September's the latest, they say - at the end of the construction freeze in the territories.
Without Labor Netanyahu will remain with a 61-strong coalition, totally dependent on the right wing or Likud extremists like Tzipi Hotoveli and Danny Danon. He will have only one choice - to hold elections or add Yaakov Katz and his friends from the National Union to the coalition. In this case Israel will become, as far as the United States is concerned, a member of a new "axis of evil." That even Netanyahu doesn't want.
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