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What Netanyahu Wants Obama to Know

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What Netanyahu Wants Obama to Know
by Norman J. Kurz

Sworn in Tuesday as Israel's new Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu's honeymoon is over already. He was welcomed by the Washington Post, for example, with the message that tension in the U.S.-Israel relationship would be a good thing.

Writing a week earlier, Saeb Erakat, a negotiator on behalf of the Palestinian Authority and its leadership, gave new meaning to the word "chutzpah" when he opined that "Israel has undermined the very credibility of the peace process." This is an odd charge for a putative peace partner to make when he knows Israel cannot be expected to agree to its own dismantlement by Hamas terrorists, the same gang whose modus operandi is to throw Erakat's Fatah colleagues off of rooftops when they get out of line.

Indeed, Netanyahu's assumption of power has produced a great wringing of hands around the globe, but relatively little serious discussion about what is necessary to achieve actual progress between Israelis and Palestinians. Rather than lecture Netanyahu and Israel that time is running out on the two state solution, a formula an unrequited Israel accepted more than 60 years ago, critics ought to consider the steps Israel can and cannot take given the lessons it has learned in recent years.

Among the most important lessons Israel absorbed the hard way is the price it must pay for unilaterally evacuating territory. Thirty years ago last week Israel returned all of Sinai in the context of a peace agreement with Egypt, an imperfect pact that nonetheless gave both sides much of what they needed.

But in the absence of a strong partner with whom to deal in Gaza, Israel unilaterally evacuated the territory in 2005 after a long and debilitating occupation. All Israelis understood the benefits of not having troops bogged down in the treacherous alleyways of Gaza's urban slums, but some, like Netanyahu, argued against unilateral action for fear Hamas would take advantage of the vacuum, given the weakness of the Palestinian Authority.

Today, if there is consensus about anything in Israel's fractious politics, it is the certainty that Israel should not abandon settlements in the West Bank without a negotiated agreement with a credible partner possessing the power to follow through on its obligations. This is deeply felt even among the majority of Israelis that polls continue to show favor the "land for peace" formula requiring Israel to abandon most settlements.

And how could it be otherwise? After Israel pulled out entirely from Gaza, leaving Israeli built commercial infrastructure intact only to see it ransacked in another display of mindless hostility and self-destructiveness, Palestinians chose terrorism over economic development and nation building. After enduring thousands of rounds of Iranian supplied Hamas rockets deliberately fired from Gaza into population centers throughout southern Israel putting a million Israelis under siege, no amount of U.S. or international pressure on Netanyahu could convince him or most Israelis that it's a good idea to simply retreat from the West Bank.

Which inevitably brings us to the leadership crisis within the Palestinian community: none of Israel's critics, so full of advice and threats for the new Israeli government, actually believe Israel has a negotiating partner worthy of the name. President Mahmoud Abbas, and especially Prime Minister Salim Fayyad, are considered reasonable men, not only in Washington, but in Jerusalem as well. Of course, no one in either capital believes either man can deliver the milk, much less the Palestinian people, for a historic and lasting negotiated agreement. And few outside Tehran believe Hamas can ever be an alternative, unless it changes so fundamentally that it no longer is Hamas.

Does this remove all burdens from Netanyahu and Israel? Certainly not. There are many things Israel can and should do to advance prospects for peace, from continuing to explore if Syria is serious about reaching a settlement or is playing its typical byzantine games, to working to improve the lives of West Bank Palestinians, to standing up against its own extremists.

Israelis realized years ago that demographic pressures require giving up West Bank settlements and territories to secure the Jewish state's national security interests. No less than Ariel Sharon came to understand this imperative, leading to his decision in 2005 to leave Gaza and, in an underappreciated but highly symbolic act, four West Bank settlements, the proverbial camel's nose under the tent intended to show he was prepared to go much further to achieve real security.

But Gaza and Hamas have proven that in the age of terrorism and unbending Islamic extremism, it is not enough for one side to want an end to a conflict, to try to walk away from hostilities. Pressure on Israel to give up tangible assets without someone reliable on the other side to receive it is naive. President Obama said it best when he reminded us that meaningful engagement requires not only the extending of one's hand, but the other side's unclenching of its fist.

Israel's strategic choice must always be to work closely with the United States in shared pursuit of peace and security. Netanyahu, who understands American politics well, knows he needs to build a good working relationship with a new U.S. president intent on changing America's image abroad. He will be challenged to show good faith with U.S. efforts in the region, and he would be foolish to butt heads early on.

But it should not take the Obama administration long to determine that hammering Israel on settlements may placate others in the region and around the globe, but that it is fruitless to expect Israelis once more to act unilaterally by repeating in the West Bank what clearly has not worked in Gaza. As long as Palestinian society and politics are held hostage by Hamas and like-minded extremists, Netanyahu is off the hook. Thus, whatever initiative the new American president decides to undertake must recognize Israel's need for a Palestinian partner of substance and strength, the missing ingredient for generations.

Norm Kurz is President of The Kurz Company, a communications consulting firm, and former communications director to Vice President Joe Biden.