Time to Play the Game

U.S. President Barack Obama's behavior these days recalls the recent behavior of another gentleman, also an English-speaker: Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer. Like Fischer, Obama is also very polite. Like Fischer, Obama is also very cold. Like Fischer, Obama is also determined and precise. And what Obama is telling Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is exactly what Fischer told Shari Arison: I'm the boss. I will drop you a hint, I will meet with you and I will tell you how much time you have, but I will not leave you alone. If you do not behave the way I expect you to, I will crush you, in a dispassionate, American way.

The U.S. president's behavior is not entirely fair. Obama knows the urgent problem in the Middle East is not natural growth in the settlements, and that there is no Palestinian partner at the moment for real peace. There is quite a bit of the absurd in the fact that the man who dons kid gloves when it comes to North Korea's ruler and the president of Venezuela slams the Israeli prime minister with a resounding punch. But the world is not a fair place. And in this unfair world, it is the task of the statesman not to complain, but to act wisely. Therefore, like Shari Arison, Netanyahu now feels the steamroller going over him. If he doesn't change his ways soon, he might lose the whole pot.

The big mistake of Netanyahu circa 2009 is that he is trying to shut down his opponents' attack, which prevents him from scoring any goals or thrilling the crowd. Those who choose that strategy will end up losing the game. Even if they are talented and impressive, one day the sky will simply fall on them.

Netanyahu can't say he wasn't warned. Since election day the advisers who care about him have been telling him over and over to take the initiative. Listen to Obama, stay one step ahead, propose something. But Netanyahu insisted on isolating himself and sweating it out. He did not distill out of his considerable strategic wisdom a general diplomatic program. He did not translate threats into hope. He did not formulate a vision or offer something new.

Almost everything Netanyahu told the Americans in Washington is true. But the statesman's task is not to tell the truth. His task is to understand the system of forces in which he operates and to make these forces work for him, not against him. Netanyahu has not yet done this. He did not want to understand the American distress. He did not understand the depth of Arab distress. He has not contributed his part to the creation of an American-Arab-Israeli alliance. Therefore, he might soon find himself facing an American-Arab alliance with anti-Israeli characteristics. In the Middle East, if you're not at the table you're on the menu. At the moment, that is the direction in which Netanyahu is going. Obama might offer his head to the Arab rulers on a silver platter.

There is only one way for Bibi to save himself: initiative. An Israeli initiative now. And there is only one initiative that Netanyahu can offer: a long-term plan to build up the Palestinian nation. Not a failed Annapolis a la Olmert and Bush. Not the wise rhetoric of two states now, a la Livni and Rice. Rather, a realistic plan to build Palestine, stage by stage. A plan that will suit Obama's faith in nation-building and the Arab need for a Palestinian process, without endangering Israel's security. A plan that will allow the U.S., Israel, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the Gulf States to promote a regional enterprise that will give the cold, gray Middle East a hopeful horizon.

If Netanyahu makes a move, the settlers setting fire to the hilltops may bring him down. But only he who dares wins. As Arison split from Dankner, so must Netanyahu split from the extreme right. Netanyahu can only take part in the new Middle East game if he proposes to the Americans and the Arabs that they all rally around the common cause of building a nation in Palestine.