Three weeks after Benjamin Netanyahu returned from his visit to Barack Obama, there is no longer any doubt that the prime minister has failed in his most important mission - to build a bond of trust with the U.S. president. The signs are clear: Israel and the United States are trading messages through speeches and headlines instead of through discrete consultations. Netanyahu is convinced that Obama is seeking a confrontation with Israel, while the president and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are publicly demanding that the prime minister change his political stripes, just as his predecessors Menachem Begin, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert did.
A photo released by the White House, which shows Obama talking on the phone with Netanyahu on Monday, speaks volumes: The president is seen with his legs up on the table, his face stern and his fist clenched, as though he were dictating to Netanyahu: "Listen up and write 'Palestinian state' a hundred times. That's right, Palestine, with a P." As an enthusiast of Muslim culture, Obama surely knows there is no greater insult in the Middle East than pointing the soles of one's shoes at another person. Indeed, photos of other presidential phone calls depict Obama leaning on his desk, with his feet on the floor.
The fraught relationship with Obama and his administration is just one aspect of Netanyahu's trifecta of failures. His second failure is his positions. Netanyahu opposes a Palestinian state and a withdrawal from most of the West Bank. Unlike Olmert, Ehud Barak or opposition leader Tzipi Livni, who are willing to accept a small, demilitarized and well-supervised Palestinian state, Netanyahu fundamentally opposes a two-state solution and considers it a danger to Israel.
On Sunday, the prime minister will deliver an address at Bar-Ilan University. He is widely expected to use this speech to move closer to adopting the two-state solution and accepting the road map, which leads to a Palestinian state alongside Israel. If so, he will surely explain this dramatic turnabout by saying that his predecessors, who accepted the road map, left him with an impossible legacy - just as he was obliged to accept, and implement, the Oslo Accords during his previous term as prime minister. He will present reservations and preconditions that will weaken the Palestinian state and argue that the Iranian threat is more important, so he must work with the United States rather than against it.
The diplomatic vision Netanyahu puts forth will presumably be vague enough to let him keep his rightist coalition partners while earning praise from Barak and President Shimon Peres for his swift about-face. But he will still have to explain why he waited until now, when he will look like a dishrag who caved in to pressure from Obama rather than a leader who took the initiative. After all, America's demand that he recognize a Palestinian state was not exactly a surprise. He would be better off embracing it now and hoping that his hitherto inexplicable stubbornness will be forgotten.
Netanyahu's third failure is his loss of control over the agenda. Before departing for his White House meeting, Netanyahu promised to make the Iranian threat a key issue. But Obama and his aides managed to divert attention toward construction in the settlements - an issue on which Israel has no supporters. Nobody will protest outside the White House or collect congressmen's signatures on petitions in favor of building houses to accommodate "natural growth" in the settlements. The entire argument is specious: Israel wants to build there to strengthen its control over the territories, not so that "settlers' children can live next to their parents."
It would have been possible to understand Netanyahu if he were defending Jews' right to live anywhere in the Land of Israel, as the right has been urging. Such a message may be hard to market to the world, but at least it is coherent and based on principle. In contrast, the demand for "natural growth" reduces a clash over principles to a quibble over real estate. Still, Netanyahu's coalition is committed to expanding the settlements, and Netanyahu wants to preserve it.
Netanyahu's speech on Sunday will give him a second chance to try to rehabilitate his ties with Obama, adjust his government's positions to Washington's demands and divert the agenda from the silly debate over "natural growth" to matters far more crucial to Israel. He may never get a third chance.