Hu Jintao, Barack Obama (AP)
Hu Jintao and Barack Obama in Washington. Photo by AP
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The people of southern Sudan vote in a referendum to separate from the north. The citizens of Tunisia rise up, oust their ruler, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and hope to introduce democracy. Lebanon is on the verge of becoming unstable and may fall into the hands of Hezbollah. And then there are the expected changes of power in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and the American withdrawal from Iraq.

The world as we know it is disappearing. President Hu Jintao of China is visiting his counterpart Barack Obama in Washington and it's clear to everyone which of the two is the stronger leader, which of them heads a power in the ascendant and which heads a power in decline.

Indeed, the "Chinese model" of centralist rule, which makes quick decisions about building infrastructures, without lobbyists and without a High Court of Justice, is now drawing gasps of amazement in the West. Suddenly people are asking whether liberal democracy has not accorded the citizenry too much power, and thus blocked Chinese-style rapid growth. The undeniable fact is that school children in Shanghai are outperforming American pupils in international scholastic tests.

By their nature, changes generate apprehension. And no one is more apprehensive than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, sitting solitary in his bureau in Jerusalem and trying with all his might to preserve the status quo. World leaders are not eager to meet him. He is still waiting for an invitation from Beijing, which has yet to arrive. The only leader who invites Netanyahu frequently to visit is Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the salient representative of the world of yesterday. No wonder, then, that Netanyahu flinched at the upheaval in Tunisia and the referendum in Sudan, openi ng this week's cabinet meeting with a warning about the "great instability" in the region. When he was younger, Netanyahu urged democracy in the Arab world, but nowadays he prefers the tyrants. They can be trusted not to surprise him.

Israel is entering this new era from a position of strength. Its economy is growing and attracting labor migrants and returning Israeli emigrants. Israel's great rival in the struggle for regional hegemony, Iran, is under international pressure and sanctions. The Israel Defense Forces is for now deterring Hezbollah and Hamas, and the Palestinian Authority is keeping the lid on the West Bank.

Furthermore, the prime minister's maneuvers are succeeding. In the name of "political stability," the Labor Party ministers who pestered Netanyahu with threats of resignation were removed from office, pushing off elections further into the future. Defense Minister Ehud Barak stayed on but with diminished status, and is being additionally hurt by the problems involving the appointment of Yoav Galant as chief of staff. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Netanyahu's arch-rival, is a candidate for an indictment that will remove him from office. Meanwhile, the opponents of an attack on Iran are retiring one by one, broadening the premier's freedom of action.

There remains only the Palestinian question, which is bothering Netanyahu and threatening to erupt in the summer. The prime minister is looking for a way to outflank PA President Mahmoud Abbas, as the latter travels the world collecting supporters for a declaration of independence. The government is increasingly inclined to realize that an Israeli policy initiative is needed that will halt the erosion in foreign relations.

The emerging solution is to "upgrade the PA" - an idea that was put forward some years ago by the Reut Institute for Policy Planning: recognizing a Palestinian state within the existing borders of the Oslo Accords. Israel would thus rid itself of the demographic menace and of the threats of a "collapse of the PA" and a binational state. The Palestinians would gain independence, but would not get one more millimeter of land without recognizing Israel as a Jewish state and agreeing to the end of the conflict. This idea has the support of Vice Prime Minister Moshe Ya'alon and also has broad backing within the ministerial forum of seven.

If the Palestinians respond negatively, as is their wont, Netanyahu will have irrefutable proof that Israel does not have a partner for peace. And if they take everyone by surprise and agree, Abbas will obtain a seat in the United Nations, Obama will justify his Nobel Peace Prize and Netanyahu will be perceived as the magician who succeeded in breaching Israel's isolation without forgoing anything. Maybe that's the surprise he is planning for the next hundred days - one that will give him a place of honor in the new, unstable world.