Israel’s Netanyahu: Taking a Turn Toward Pragmatism?

Israels Netanyahu: Taking a Turn Toward Pragmatism?

Israel is a nation of worriers. No matter how pleasant the evening, at a certain point, after the jokes and well into the merlot from the Judaean hills, the worrying starts. No doubt, Israelis have plenty to worry about. They live between wars and must contend with Hamas, Hizballah and–the biggest anxiety of all–Iran, whose President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has said Israel should be “wiped off the map.”

It was the worry factor that led to the re-election of Benjamin Netanyahu, the leader of the Likud Party, who took over as Prime Minister in March. The vote was begrudging. Netanyahu’s first foray in that office, from 1996 to 1999, ended badly. He was lampooned as a brash know-it-all, arrogant and at the mercy of a wife who allegedly pelted the hired help with shoes. But Israelis were willing to forgive the ex-commando because Bibi, as he is known, was tough on security. That he remains, in particular when it comes to Iran. Aluf Benn, diplomatic correspondent for the daily Ha’aretz, says Netanyahu’s “actions are shaped by a profound conviction that Israel will be in danger of extermination if Iran has nuclear weapons at its disposal.” Netanyahu wants Iran to be as much on President Barack Obama’s mind as it is on his. On May 18, when the Israeli leader pays his first visit to the Obama White House, he will seek a pledge that the U.S. will do everything in its power–diplomatically, economically and perhaps militarily–to stop Iran from building nukes. Otherwise, Netanyahu is expected to drop the hint that Israel will take out Iran’s nuclear installations by itself, regardless of the shock waves that would send through the world. A poll by Bar-Ilan University showed that 66% of Israelis support a military strike against Iran if all other efforts fail. Netanyahu himself draws parallels between the Holocaust and the specter of an Iranian bomb aimed at Tel Aviv. That sort of doomsday rhetoric won’t necessarily go down well with the White House. Iran’s intentions worry the U.S. too, of course, but Obama and his advisers are expected to move briskly to an equally pressing matter: Netanyahu’s refusal to back the idea of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. The two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the keystone of U.S. policy in the Middle East, and Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are demanding that Netanyahu sign on. Netanyahu has hinted that he does not oppose the creation of a Palestinian state, but aides say he must move cautiously because his religious-nationalist coalition partners refuse to give away land. Netanyahu knows the U.S. well. His father taught Jewish history at Cornell University, and the Prime Minister graduated from MIT. His advisers say he has a weather eye for the mood in Washington and knows it is not as sunny as it used to be. Israeli officials have gauged that while Netanyahu can count on support from the Obama Administration and Congress, “it’s no longer infinite,” says an official at a pro-Israeli lobby in Washington. Obama is not George W. Bush, who backed Israel’s wars in Lebanon and Gaza and rarely complained about the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. And the Obama Administration numbers plenty of ex-Clintonites who dislike Netanyahu from the last time around. Banging the Drum