Netanyahu's Biggest Test Is About to Begin

The speeches Netanyahu will make at the AIPAC conference and in the Congress are the speeches of his life, and will determine the rest of his term: a confrontation with the U.S. or reaching an understanding with Obama.

After the public exchange of blows last weekend between United States President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the phase of calming down began on Sunday.

The prime minister listened to the U.S. president's speech at the AIPAC conference, and released a statement expressing "appreciation" of Obama's message and praise for his "past and present" efforts for peace.

Benjamin Netanyahu
Tomer Appelbaum

Obama didn't change the main points he talked about in his speech on Thursday, which focused on the Middle East. That speech both infuriated Netanyahu and made him apprehensive, because of the explicit focus on the 1967 borders with land-swaps as a basis for the future border between Israel and Palestine. Netanyahu responded by demanding that Obama renew the promise made by his predecessor George W. Bush, that the border will not be drawn on the '67 lines, and warned of a "peace based on illusions" that will bring the end of Israel.

Obama came to the AIPAC conference on Sunday to show that he is not afraid to tell his truth in the lion's den of the pro-Israel lobby. When he came on stage he was received with booing. He was unfazed. The U.S. president looked much more in his element facing a live crowd than he did when he appeared before officials and diplomats at the State Department on Sunday. Obama came to an election rally, and instead of pleasing the crowd with jokes, he twisted things around: I am not afraid of disagreeing with Netanyahu even when I am running for reelection. I said '67 lines, now what are you going to do to me?

In the speech, Obama hardened the tone against Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah (and even hinted that the organization assassinated the former prime minister of Lebanon, Rafik Hariri). He promised to strengthen Israel's security and fight the attempts to delegitimize it. In AIPAC, these messages are welcome, and the applause was heard accordingly. But when he came to the Palestinian issue Obama stood his ground: the stagnation is damaging to Israel, which will find it difficult over time to deal with the Palestinian population growth inside and the anger of Arab crowd on the outside.

Obama softened the last speech somewhat. This time he talked about an agreement that will bring an end to the conflict and to the Palestinian claims, as Netanyahu is demanding. Obama also made clear that the agreed upon land-swaps will take place according to the reality on the ground, which has changed over the past 44 years. He didn't mention the word "occupation," which this particular crowd hates, nor did he mention the settlements.

Obama's speech shows that he is not really expecting the negotiations to resume. He does not trust Netanyahu or Mahmoud Abbas, and finds no partner in Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel. Yet he is concerned about the international stance that tends to support the Palestinian declaration of independence this September at the United Nations The declaration will paint the U.S. as a superpower without power, one that did not keep its promise to give the Palestinians independence. Therefore, Obama want Israel to give him something to work with when he visits European leaders this week, in order to stop the momentum towards September.

Netanyahu probably understands this, and has also realized there is only so much insolence Israeli leaders can show the president of the United States. He also knows that the crowd at home, which places a high value on America's support, is wary of a confrontation with it. And so Netanyahu responded positively to Obama's second speech, and even pointed out important points in it (most of which appeared in the previous speech).

Now it's the prime minister's turn, in the speeches he will make Monday night at AIPAC and on Tuesday in Congress. These are the speeches of his life that will determine the rest of his term: an ongoing conflict with the U.S. that will drive him back to his roots in the extreme right – or to try to reach an understanding with Obama that will leave Netanyahu in the center and give Israel a way out of the burdensome political isolation.

At the White House on Friday, Netanyahu chose the first option, and on Sunday, he leaned towards the second one. Yet his big test begins Monday night, when he will have to answer the question that all U.S. presidents have asked since the Six Day War: "What kind of Israel do you want, Mr. Prime Minister?"