The prime minister's either-or dilemma
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is trapped by contradictory elements in three arenas: defense, diplomacy and politics.
Today and during this week, in advance of Independence Day, we will repeatedly hear our leaders make the comparison between the Holocaust in Europe and the subsequent establishment of the State of Israel, and the Iranian nuclear threat to Israel's existence. Those who speak in such terms are serious; indeed, all other issues are dwarfed by the need to remove this existential threat. But meanwhile, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is trapped by contradictory elements in three arenas: defense, diplomacy and politics.
In the apocryphal comparison attributed to David Ben-Gurion - "To fight Hitler as if the White Paper does not exist, and to fight the White Paper as if Hitler does not exist" - the key phrase is "as if." There is no possibility for both at the same time: It's either-or. There is one main effort to which everything is subordinated; everything else is put on hold until the overriding goal is achieved.
If Netanyahu believes that Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are the Hitlers of the 21st century, he cannot give the same priority to Israel's aspirations to hold onto large chunks of the West Bank and Golan Heights.
Behind the slogans, including that of a "long-lasting tragedy," Ben-Gurion knew how to tread carefully between the giants without being crushed by the weight of their power. That is why he agreed to partitioning the land, giving up the West Bank and withdrawing from Sinai and Gaza.
Winston Churchill - who proclaimed: "I have not become the King's first minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire" - paid that price in return for America's willingness to save Britain in World War II. If Netanyahu has pretensions of saving Israel, he must preside over the liquidation of Israel's empire of settlements.
To convince President Barack Obama to allow Israel to thwart the Iranian danger, which is darkening the security horizon like fallout from a mushroom cloud, Netanyahu must make a "down payment" in an effort to clear the diplomatic horizon. And it must be a down payment on the future, not just payment of an old debt since the delays filled with excuses and evasions on both sides foiled any progress toward an agreement on peaceful coexistence in the days of Netanyahu and Yassir Arafat a decade ago.
Netanyahu can already look forward to a lack of Palestinian willingness to reach a final compromise on the issues of refugees and Jerusalem, which will save him from the need to withdraw and dismantle settlements. But the burden of taking the first, generous step still rests on his shoulders.
If he does not quickly initiate an Israeli plan - which the Arabs are likely to reject more due to the person making the offer than because of the offer itself - he will have to come up with a response to Obama's plan, which will be presented to the sides at the end of George Mitchell's initial missions here.
Obama says the elements particularly lacking in the process of achieving peace in the Middle East are political will and leadership. Netanyahu refused to give half the leadership of the current government to Tzipi Livni, and he will not be able to lead this cabinet very far.
As Senate majority leader for the Democrats, Mitchell found himself at first to be at odds with George H.W. Bush, and later became a supporter of Bill Clinton. Mitchell left the impression in Israel that positive changes in the makeup of its cabinet would not alarm him or his bosses.
There is a real majority among both the public and the Knesset (Kadima, Labor, Meretz, the Arab parties and part of Likud) for a territorial compromise, secured with security measures - especially if it is necessary to remove an existential threat. For now, Netanyahu does not reflect this majority sentiment. If he does not coordinate activity in the diplomatic arena with that in the security arena, and both of them with his moves in the political arena, he will be violating his commitment to reduce the risks to Israel. He will be left only with the flowery phrases of Holocaust Remembrance Day, Memorial Day and Independence Day.