Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leaves tonight for a visit of considerable importance to Washington. The American government has decided to give him a second chance, following the Ramat Shlomo crisis that erupted during Vice President Joseph Biden's visit to Israel. The opportunity was made clear on Friday when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Netanyahu's answers to her most recent inquiries "useful and productive."
The U.S. had demanded that Netanyahu restrain Israeli building in East Jerusalem, make a gesture to the Palestinian Authority and agree to deliberations on all the core issues - permanent borders, Jerusalem and refugees - in indirect talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Netanyahu supplied partial answers that the Americans accepted, and this quieted the public disagreement between the two countries.
Netanyahu must make use of this second chance to create a new relationship with President Barack Obama and senior members of the U.S. government. Obama's support is vital to achieving Netanyahu's stated goals: preventing Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons and an agreement with the Palestinians for two states for two peoples. It is up to Netanyahu to repair working relations with the president and senior members of his staff; this is in Israel's interest.
Netanyahu will commit a grave error if he is tempted to continue the damaging clash with Obama, and if he uses the pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), to enlist the president's political enemies to advance the positions of the Israeli right wing. Obama is not an enemy - the Haaretz-Dialog poll published Friday shows that 69 percent of the Israeli public believes that Obama's approach to Israel is fair and even friendly.
The prime minister must make clear to Israeli supporters in America that he is moving in step with Obama in order to achieve the two countries' common goals. Netanyahu's trip will be considered a success if it ends with renewed negotiations with the Palestinians. The Quartet of Middle East peace negotiators' recent announcement that it supports the establishment of a Palestinian state before the summer of 2011 offers a reasonable schedule for achieving an agreement.
Netanyahu must enter these negotiations with complete seriousness, overcome the political obstacles placed before him by extreme members of his coalition, and strive for an agreement that will establish an independent Palestine at Israel's side, as he promised in his speech at Bar-Ilan University. This is what his hosts in Washington expect of him.
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