Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will meet with U.S. President Barack Obama today for the fifth time. Few leaders are privileged with such frequent opportunities to state their positions to the leader of the world's strongest power. With his invitation, Obama is demonstrating his dedication to commitments made in his Cairo address, during which he pledged to end the Middle East conflict. Reports emerging from Washington suggest the White House is trying to calm the ill wind that has polluted the Obama-Netanyahu relationship, and is going out of its way to show the guest from Jerusalem a warm welcome.
While the prime minister has said he intends to tell Obama that direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians must be resumed as soon as possible, his words and deeds suggest that he plans to continue passing the buck for the stagnant peace process onto the Palestinians. For his part, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has said Netanyahu has yet to respond to the position paper the PA presented to U.S. mediator George Mitchell on its stance concerning borders and security arrangements.
Recent remarks from Defense Minister Ehud Barak also confirm that Netanyahu has yet to outline his plan for reaching a two-state solution. Barak called on the premier to present Obama with a "clear initiative" that would create an independent, demilitarized Palestinian state while leaving the major settlement blocs near the Green Line in Israel's hands.
On the eve of Netanyahu's U.S. visit, he and Barak have proven that they do in fact have the ability to weaken the influence of rightist factions within the coalition, and beyond, and to take a more moderate diplomatic line. Last month the cabinet authorized an easing of the Gaza blockade, and this week a key ministerial committee rejected a bill aimed at transferring authority over renewing the settlement construction freeze from the cabinet to the Knesset. Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat has even thrown out a plan to build 60 additional housing units beyond the Green Line in Pisgat Ze'ev.
Having declared that the creation of a Palestinian state is a foremost Israeli interest, Netanyahu is now obligated to seize any opportunity to reach that goal. The prime minister must not squander the occasion presented by his meeting with Obama by haggling over a settlement freeze; he must present objectives that are both courageous and realistic.
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