On a Collision Course With Obama

Can Netanyahu avoid a confrontation with Obama? Not if he remains faithful to his present platform, which disagrees with negotiating with the Palestinians on the core issues of the conflict.

The election of Barack Obama as president is a political event in more than one country. Three weeks after Obama is sworn into office, Israel will choose a new Knesset, which will then attempt to create from within it a new cabinet, headed by either Tzipi Livni or Benjamin Netanyahu.

Obama will be forced to wait until the end of the internal struggle and the establishment of a new government before he knows the identity of his new partner; but it is critical for Israeli voters to know now, as part of the information with which they calculate how to vote, whether the candidates for prime minister are on a course for collision or discussion with Obama.

The traffic reports say Livni is driving alongside Obama, and Netanyahu is approaching him head-on. Israelis do not like leaders who look weak or submissive, especially toward the Arabs. But they like even less leaders who invite a blowup with the U.S. and a steamroller of pressures, economic, diplomatic and military.

Livni represents the Israeli willingness to continue with the peace process. That is the conclusion one can draw from her participation in the Sharm el-Sheikh conference earlier this week, and from her telephone conversation two days ago with Obama's vice-presidential choice, Joe Biden. After the two got past the congratulations and good wishes, they spoke about Iran and the peace process, and her flight last night to New York for an interfaith event whose significance lies in the Saudi involvement.

Condoleezza Rice made it clear at Sharm that she intends to present the Obama administration with a "going business," ready to continue without any problem. Rice explains away the Bush administration's refusal to do the same with the Clinton legacy eight years ago using the excuses of Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat: Arafat was plagued with terror and corruption, and Sharon - the "father of the settlements," as Rice calls him - only warmed incrementally to the idea of Bush's plan to establish a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Sharon, in other words, avoided a confrontation with Bush.

Can Netanyahu avoid a confrontation with Obama? Not if he remains faithful to his present platform, which disagrees with negotiating with the Palestinians on the core issues of the conflict. This may be a good platform for convincing Benny Begin to return to the Likud, but if Netanyahu is courting Obama, then it is like sending a bouquet of thorns.

Netanyahu may very well claim that he is in the middle between Dan Meridor and Benny Begin. The former left the Likud and moved left, and the other departed and moved right - and both have now returned. This is double-talk that does not solve the real problem in Netanyahu-Obama relations: Are they of the same mind, or head to head?

Netanyahu's solution is to ignore the problem. If there is no peace process, then there will be no need for difficult decisions. Netanyahu will try to sell Obama a step-by-step and slow arrangement - but before that, Netanyahu will try to attract voters from Kadima based on his anticipated success in his convincing Obama of the same in the future.

First of all, Iran. Next Syria, and only in third and last place come the Palestinians. Even with the two tasks that entail an Israeli withdrawal - as opposed to the elimination of the Iranian threat, which is an Israeli demand - there would be an internal division into intermediate steps of prolonged cease-fire or armistice in return for partial evacuation of occupied territories. The Arab sides would not be asked to give up everything - a full peace; nor would Israel be required to provide it all either - a full evacuation.

If the formula sounds familiar, that is because it has already been tried - and failed. In the mid-1970s, during the Nixon and Ford administrations, Henry Kissinger and Yitzhak Rabin preferred to advance the peace negotiations step by step, one side at a time. Every Arab country was dealt with separately, the PLO was an untouchable abomination, and each stage was a small and hesitant jump. There was no single, daring - or possibly foolish - leap.

Jimmy Carter, then as today a Democrat entering office following eight years of Republican rule, threw out the method and strived for a regional agreement at a multi-lateral summit, and speeeded up Anwar Sadat on his journey to Jerusalem. Menachem Begin, an earlier version of Netanyahu, dropped his political platform out of fears of a confrontation with Carter. Netanyahu will be forced to decide which Begin he really is: the father or the son.

Netanyahu will have to decide between two choices: Either he mocks his voters by telling them he can not only give less and get more, but can also put off the end of the bargaining; or he intends to fall on his sword in a duel with Obama - a fall that will crush Israel. Iran will not help him. The deterioration in the position of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will allow Obama to put off, until after next June's presidential election in Iran, a decision on whether to keep his promise to talk to the leaders in Tehran, or whether to order a military attack on Iranian nuclear facilities. By next summer there may well be a new president there, perhaps someone more moderate.

The negotiations with the Syrians and Palestinians will not be so kind as to wait in a deep freeze for summer and for Iran, and not even for Obama. Putting Netanyahu behind the wheel, driving head on toward Obama, means a collision.