WASHINGTON - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu walked between the raindrops in his address to a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress and emerged as dry as he went in. He promised nothing.
And nothing that he said will make life politically complicated at home. This is his favorite position: The coalition is unified behind him; a majority of Israelis support his positions in the polls; and his freedom to maneuver has been preserved. What more could a politician wish for?
The positions Netanyahu presented on Capitol Hill, like his speech last week before the Knesset, were meant to reinforce his stance as the leader of Israel's right and to push aside the pretender to the crown, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Netanyahu wants to be seen as holding his ground and not giving into the pressure applied by U.S. President Barack Obama.
We are not occupiers, Netanyahu said. "This is the land of our forefathers, the Land of Israel, to which Abraham brought the idea of one God, where David set out to confront Goliath, and where Isaiah saw a vision of eternal peace." Congress applauded.
"The Palestinians alone are to blame for the perpetuation of the conflict, because of their refusal to recognize a Jewish state," he said. More applause.
But his talk about painful concessions, about a Palestinian state that will be "large enough," about settlements that will stay outside the borders of Israel, and about "creativity and goodwill" in Jerusalem, were meant to show that he's a pragmatist and to differentiate him from the extreme right. Defense Minister Ehud Barak will find a reason for staying in the coalition, and opposition head Tzipi Livni will have to move to the left if she wants to differentiate herself from Netanyahu. Even more important: If international pressure leads Netanyahu to cave in, and he decides to evacuate settlers, he will be able to argue that he did not cheat his constituents the way Ariel Sharon did. Netanyahu warned that not all settlements will stay in Israel.
Senior figures in the prime minister's entourage stressed the difference that he made between the size of the Palestinian state, on which he will be generous, to the determination with which he will insist on where the border passes. This is his version of the agreed exchange of territory proposed by Obama, and even hints at the plan for "exchanging populated areas" put forth by Lieberman. It's another way of creating freedom to maneuver should the pressure increase, and Israel has pull out of the West Bank.
The key paragraph in the speech was saved for last: Netanyahu promised that Israel will be the first to recognize a Palestinian state - if Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas undoes the reconciliation agreement with Hamas and comes to negotiate with the Jewish State.
It won't bring Abbas to the negotiating table tomorrow, but this stance enjoys broad support in Israel. It's also message to the outside - and that was Netanyahu's point in making the statement - that there are things to talk about.
Netanyahu is signaling to Obama and European leaders that he wants a deal as September nears, which would block international recognition of Palestine. It's May, and there's plenty of time for diplomatic work toward a deal.
For the prime minister, his visit to Washington held historic significance. He believes that he managed to stop the international torrent. In his view, the support he received in Congress sends an important message to Europe. He made a sufficiently generous offer and insisted on his red lines: no to negotiations with Hamas or with Hamas under the guise of "technocrats" in a Palestinian government; no to a return to the 1967 lines; no to the return of the refugees.
Netanyahu is convinced that his vocal criticism of the Obama speech of last Thursday was justified and timely. He's pleased with the clarifications Obama made at the AIPAC conference, and with the positive White House reaction to the speech in Congress yesterday.
His conclusion is that he needs to improve political coordination with the U.S. administration, however belatedly. He hopes that his speech will contribute to a determined U.S. stance ahead of September.
Netanyahu declared that he is also willing to give his speech in Ramallah. Very nice of him, but he knows no one on the Palestinian side will listen to him now, and that the negotiations will not be resumed on the basis of the murky positions he presented.
Abbas, who talks now about the right of return, will not respond to Netanyahu's call and declare that "I accept a Jewish State."
The prime minister was preaching to the converted yesterday, his constituents and his supporters in America. All politics is local politics. In practice, on the ground, nothing changed.
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