A Way Out for Netanyahu

Benjamin Netanyahu has a problem. The diplomatic scene is closing in on him from all directions and he is beginning his tenure as a suspect in the eyes of the international community. The bad memories of the past decade, the statements he made during the election campaign, his opposition to a Palestinian state and what appears to be his inclination toward a right-wing government have strengthened his image as an extreme conservative who insists on going against views accepted around the world. The proposed appointment of Avigdor Lieberman as foreign minister only bolsters this image.

During his victory lap in the world's capitals, Netanyahu will try to convince his interlocutors that they should give him some credit. "Wait and see," he will tell them, and remind them that they didn't believe Ariel Sharon when he spoke of "painful concessions," yet Sharon surprised them and evacuated settlements. Sharon needed more than a year - and six trips to Washington - until he convinced George W. Bush to back him. Israel pulled out of Gaza only during Bush's second term.

Barack Obama expects Israel to fall in line with the new regional order he is promoting, or at least to refrain from disrupting it. Since taking office, Obama has sent Jerusalem three positive signals: He promised to continue providing military assistance, he is boycotting the second Durban conference because its decisions are expected to target Israel, and his administration is sticking to its refusal to talk with Hamas. In all those areas, the new American administration is continuing Bush policies.

But Netanyahu wants more. At his meeting with Obama, he will try to convince the American president to stop Iran's nuclear program in the short time it will still be possible to do so. He will tell Obama that history will judge him for not dealing with Iran. And then Obama will ask Netanyahu what he is willing to do in return. In diplomacy there's no such thing as a free lunch, and Netanyahu is experienced enough to appreciate that.

What can he do? The minimum Netanyahu will be asked to do is evacuate outposts and declare a freeze on settlement construction, in addition to the "economic peace" he promised. It's hard to imagine how Netanyahu's coalition will put a stop to settlements, even if Tzipi Livni ends up joining the government. Netanyahu will try to buy time by "formulating policy," or by justifiably pointing out that the governments of Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak also failed to evacuate outposts. But the world will refuse to listen, especially if the incidents on the Gaza border continue and Israel is once more portrayed as violent and as the guilty party. The rightist coalition of Netanyahu will be stable, and will survive as long all it has to do is talk. Netanyahu needs something that will look like a diplomatic breakthrough but that won't actually cause a single settler to be evacuated from his home.

The Arab League peace initiative that Netanyahu's predecessors refused offers him just such a way out. Netanyahu can go further than previous prime ministers and announce that the Arab initiative is an unprecedented opportunity for closing ranks against the threat of Iran and the extremists in the region, and that it promises Israel, for the first time, an end to the conflict and full normalization in return for certain concessions it will have to make. He must say that his government is willing to talk with anyone in the region on the basis of the Arab initiative. Those are the sort of words that will sit well with Obama.

Netanyahu does not have to accept the Arab peace initiative as is. He can include his reservations, as Sharon did with the road map, about paving the way toward Palestinian independence. In order to bypass the Arab League's demand for a withdrawal to the 1967 lines, including in Jerusalem, and the implication that Palestinian refugees have the right of return, Netanyahu should respond with an Israeli peace initiative based on two principles: defensible borders and guarantees for the future of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. Defensible borders are mentioned in UN Resolution 242, which is accepted throughout the Arab world. And Bush's 2004 letter to Sharon states that refugees will return to a future Palestinian state, not to Israel. The issue of Jerusalem will require a more creative, ambiguous formulation.

If Netanyahu declares his support for the Arab initiative and backs up his statement with steps like lifting roadblocks, tacitly slowing settlement construction and renewing negotiations with Syria, he may be able to gain essential diplomatic credit, at least until the picture clears with Iran. His coalition will not commit suicide over this. There will be heated arguments in the cabinet, just as there were in the Sharon government over the road map, but the plan will ultimately be approved and the government will survive. This is Netanyahu's way out.