Benjamin Netanyahu
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Photo by Emil Salman
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The Netanyahu government is operating like a ship stalled at sea after running out of fuel. While it is still not in danger of sinking, it is unable to propel forward. Nor does it know where to propel to. Without a destination or clear direction, the prime minister is digging his heels into a policy of sitting tight. His political standing is robust; nobody from either his party or the opposition is threatening his grip on power. Every so often he is burdened with a crisis, like the flotilla raid, but overall life is good. A settlement freeze here, some settlement construction there, fight and then make nice with U.S. President Barack Obama - and all the while time passes without him having to concede an inch of the West Bank.

Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman are preoccupied with argumentative discourse aimed at justifying Israel's continued hold on the territories. Their statements are reminiscent of the official Israeli line during the days of Golda Meir and Abba Eban: Settlements are not the cause of the conflict, the Palestinians are inciting and supporting terrorism, and Israel is combating "a campaign of delegitimization" that aims to dismantle the state and send its Jews back to Poland and Morocco.

Last week Lieberman showed journalists a copy of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' doctoral dissertation, which he wrote as a student at Moscow's Lumumba University, and in which he sought to minimize the scope of the Holocaust. Lieberman hurled the book on the table, saying Abbas' work compared Zionism to Nazism. Such a person, Lieberman said, cannot be a partner to peace talks.

In his last speech before the Knesset, Netanyahu chronicled the recent string of attempts to delegitimize Israel, which he said is being led by Iran, the European left and radical professors in Israel. According to the prime minister, this campaign began at the Durban conference against racism in 2001 and has continued apace. In other words, Netanyahu's policy is not the reason for the wave of hostility toward Israel. His predecessors - Ariel Sharon (whom in retrospect is pegged by Netanyahu as a leftist ) and Ehud Olmert, who either conceded territory or offered to concede territory - were hit with arrest warrants for war crimes as well as hostile resolutions from international institutions. Netanyahu's conclusion is simple: No diplomatic process will help Israel in its struggle against the enemies who are conspiring to destroy it; rather, it should focus on internal unity and a determined stance.

It's a shame Netanyahu is preoccupied with the past, to the point where he has no time to deal with the future. What is his vision? What kind of state will Israel be? Where will its borders lie? What place will it hold among the nations? Or perhaps he simply does not care as long as he remains in power and the settlements remain in place. This is indeed a mystery.

Statesmanship does not only entail an exchange of accusations with the Palestinian Authority. A statesman is supposed to lead, to shepherd, set out a path - not just warn of the dangers and slander an adversary, as the prime minister is doing.

Now Netanyahu has a chance to correct his error, a sort of makeup exam on the subject of leadership. On Tuesday he is due to visit the White House, where Obama will ask him where he is headed. If Netanyahu goes to Washington and tells the Americans there is no one to talk to and they don't know what to talk about, that Abbas is a Holocaust denier and leftist professors are the enemy, he might as well stay home and continue his futile governance until the next crisis hits.

But if he actually intends on making a move, he has an extraordinary opportunity to do so. The U.S. administration has no idea how to push the diplomatic process forward and prevent the eruption of another war in the region. Wise leaders like David Ben-Gurion, Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin and Sharon knew how to take advantage of such situations to set the agenda and dictate how events would unfold, as opposed to being led and subjected to pressure.

Instead of citing hostile statements from the archives of the Palestine Liberation Organization, Netanyahu needs to present Obama with a practical proposal that can be neatly packaged and marketed. His current formula - "a demilitarized Palestinian state alongside a Jewish state" - is yawn-inducing. Such a tedious and cumbersome message would receive a failing grade in any marketing course. Compare that with phrases like "the ingathering of the exiles," "peace," "an end to the conflict," and "disengagement," as enunciated by his predecessors. These messages electrified the public and tilted world governments toward Israel.

The prime minister is at the height of his power and capable of choosing from a variety of options: A Palestinian state with provisional borders, final-status negotiations and peace with Syria. If only he would make a decision and not recant immediately afterward, Obama would stand beside him. But in the meantime, Netanyahu is showing no signs of change. On the contrary, he is moving backward, to the days of Yitzhak Shamir and his efforts to buy time. It would behoove him to come to his senses and take advantage of the rare opportunity before him, because there's a chance he will not have another chance at a do-over.