Netanyahu's Retooled, Broader Stance Gets Warmer Reception in U.S.

By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 20, 2009

JERUSALEM, May 19 -- During his first turn as Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu arrived in Washington in 1996 with a chip on his shoulder and a long list of things he said he would not do -- from slowing the expansion of Israeli settlements to meeting with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

It was the start of a famously testy relationship with President Bill Clinton, characterized by public fights, haggling and ultimately a drop in support for Netanyahu in Israel.

For his first meeting with President Obama this week, Netanyahu brought not defiance over potential differences with his host, but a broad argument about the regional security threat posed by Iran and a list of steps he said he would take to improve life for the Palestinians.

Less bombastic, more strategic and playing for what he apparently regards as higher stakes, Netanyahu's approach 13 years later appears to have won him some initial goodwill from the Oval Office.

With Clinton, "it did not click, definitely. The Clinton administration was still very nostalgic" about assassinated prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, who had signed the Oslo peace accords with Arafat, said Zalman Shoval, Israel's ambassador to the United States during Netanyahu's first term. "Netanyahu was a new prime minister, and I think he was not flexible enough."

By contrast, Obama on Monday praised Netanyahu's "political skills but also his historical vision," adding, "He is going to rise to the occasion, and I actually think you are going to see movement" on a regional peace effort.

To Palestinians and Arabs, Netanyahu remains a polarizing figure who has built his career not only on a paramount commitment to Israeli security -- typical for the country's leaders -- but also on opposition to a Palestinian state.

His views on those issues, at the root of many disputes with the Clinton administration and at odds with Obama's position, have not changed. Netanyahu says he supports limited Palestinian self-rule, but not a Palestinian state with full sovereignty.

What has shifted is the world around him. Islamist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah have grown stronger, Iran is developing nuclear technology, and the United States has become bogged down in two wars after suffering a major terrorist attack. Israelis say their withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005 helped strengthen Hamas, which has since seized control of the enclave, and was followed not by calm but by rocket and mortar fire into their towns.

In recent years, Netanyahu and a group of security advisers have bundled those and other facts and trends into a single argument -- that Israel faces a threat to its existence and will be hesitant to grant significant concessions to the Palestinians until that threat diminishes.

"The circumstances around him have changed, because Israel is in a very different position than it was," said Daniel Gordis, senior vice president and a senior fellow at the Shalem Center, a Jerusalem-based research institute from which Netanyahu has drawn several advisers and staff members. In his first term, "the idea that Israel's sovereignty could be in question was not on anybody's mind. And now it is very much on people's minds."

Netanyahu's critics, Palestinian officials chief among them, argue that the broader security argument is being used to deflect attention from issues the prime minister does not want to confront -- such as the policy on West Bank settlements, Palestinians' demands for freer movement as a reward for improved West Bank security, and the grim conditions endured by residents of Gaza, which has been under an Israeli embargo since Hamas won parliamentary elections in early 2006.

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