The Old Bibi's Back

It seems like the "Bibi" of old has come back to edge aside the balanced, responsible, politically central "new" Benjamin Netanyahu.

The prime minister has started behaving like he did in his last term - launching controversial construction in East Jerusalem, just moments after he agreed to accept a Palestinian state. And in case anyone forgot, Netanyahu reminded us he was acting like "Bibi" did in the Har Homa affair, when he approved massive construction there right after the Hebron agreement. Netanyahu is provoking the Americans, who protested weakly against the new construction project in Sheikh Jarrah. They wanted to keep it quiet, but Netanyahu chose to cause a crisis, with statements like "we won't accept any restriction of our sovereignty over Jerusalem." He boasted of his staunch stance against the Americans in the Har Homa affair. Jews have the right to live anywhere, whether in East Jerusalem or New York, he said.

Netanyahu is not the only one binding himself with rigid statements. The Palestinian Authority chairman does so too. Mahmoud Abbas has reiterated his commitment to the refugees' right of return.

What happened to the two leaders? Perhaps they're bracing for the American peace plan, expected in about two months, and trying to block internal pressure on the core issues.

Supporters of the two-state solution assume the compromise would oblige Israel to cede control of East Jerusalem and force the Palestinians to renounce their demand that refugees be able to return to lands in Israel. Jerusalem in exchange for the right of return. The problem is that these are the two issues that both sides refuse to compromise on.

Netanyahu and Abbas, despite their disconnect, are trying to influence Obama's peace plan. The Saudis are pressing the Americans to present a detailed plan outlining the final status arrangement, as Bill Clinton did. Israel and the Palestinians are afraid of this as it would look like a forced arrangement.

The Americans are not keen on presenting a detailed plan. It's too risky. Clinton failed, but he was on the verge of ending his term. Obama is new and if he presents demands that are not met and a draft agreement that isn't implemented, it would hurt him. Besides, if he makes do with a general outline, he could always return to the details later.

So the Americans prefer a general plan focusing on procedure and setting a date for the agreement. This would lower the risk.

Former president George Bush tried the "schedule approach" twice - in the road map of 2003 and the Annapolis conference in 2007 - and saw no results. But Bush sent the sides to get along by themselves and report back on the results. Obama intends to be involved in active American mediation.

Next week will be crucial to Israel's relations with Obama, when envoys George Mitchell, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and National Security Advisor Jim Jones. Their visits show that Israel is not a pariah in Washington and that the administration wants to reach an understanding with Netanyahu, despite the argument over freezing the settlements.

But the real test will be around the presentation of Obama's plan, and when it is revealed how much energy he intends to invest in pushing it.