Upping the Ante on Israel

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WASHINGTON -- Binyamin Netanyahu's friends liken him to a good poker player. They explain, for example, that before the Israeli prime minister plays the card marked "Palestinian state," he wants an American commitment that this state will be demilitarized.

But the Israeli leader faced an unusual test in his meeting this week with Barack Obama. The new president is not the poker-player sort of politician: When he decides to do something, he goes straight at it, laying his cards on the table faceup. That direct style is becoming an Obama signature, and it has subtly changed the dynamics of the U.S. dialogue with Israel.

The relationship has traditionally been an intricate political dance, with American presidents weighing how far they can go without offending Israel's supporters in Congress. But that sort of gamesmanship was absent this time: Obama said he wants negotiations for a Palestinian state, soon, and he challenged the Israeli prime minister to get on board.

Obama squeezed Netanyahu, ever so gently, in his public comments after their Oval Office meeting: "I have great confidence in Prime Minister Netanyahu's political skills, but also his historical vision. ... And I have great confidence that he's going to rise to the occasion," Obama said.

Obama similarly outmaneuvered Netanyahu in the run-up to the White House meeting. The Israeli leader sought to link progress on the Palestinian issue with a tough U.S. stand against Iran. But from his first day in office, Obama began staking out strong U.S. positions -- for a Palestinian state and for engagement with Iran. By this week, Netanyahu found himself acceding to Obama's plans for exploratory talks with Iran through year-end, even though many Israelis fear this timetable could be dangerous.

To reassure Israel and its supporters, Obama said the right words Monday: He spoke about the "special relationship" and pledged that "Israel's security is paramount." But that didn't paper over the wide gap between U.S. and Israeli positions on Palestinian statehood.

The Obama strategy over the next few months will be to create a regional framework for peace negotiations that's enticing enough to draw in the wary Netanyahu. To give Israel some quick tangible benefits, the U.S. wants the Arabs to begin normalizing relations with the Jewish state. Jordan's King Abdullah describes this promise of recognition by the Arab League nations as a "23-state solution."

The key to this front-loading strategy is Saudi Arabia. But the Saudis warn privately that they won't normalize anything unless Israel makes some dramatic moves -- such as freezing settlements in the occupied West Bank -- that demonstrate its commitment to the 2003 "road map" for peace.

To break this logjam, the Obama administration appears ready to lean hard on Netanyahu. Obama has a range of options, starting with criticism of Israel for failing to meet the road map conditions and escalating to tougher measures.

Obama bluntly stated his opposition to settlements: "I shared with the prime minister the fact that under the road map ... there's a clear understanding that we have to make progress in settlements. Settlements have to be stopped in order for us to move forward."

To start narrowing the gap between U.S. and Israeli positions, Obama directed his Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, to sit down with the Israeli team immediately after the Oval Office meeting. Mitchell's mediation efforts will intensify in coming days, as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas visit Washington next week and Obama travels to Cairo in early June for a speech that will dramatize his outreach to the Arab world.

Here's where Netanyahu's poker skills will be tested. The Israeli prime minister wants U.S. and Arab leaders to pledge that any future Palestinian state will be demilitarized -- with no army and no control over its airspace -- before he agrees to negotiate the details of statehood. Netanyahu probably isn't bluffing on this one: Unless a formula can be reached that protects Israeli security, he won't play.

Netanyahu knew Obama was a rare politician when they first met in March 2007. Back then, nobody was giving the Illinois senator much of a chance, but the Likud leader told his aides: "I think this is the next president of the United States." Now Netanyahu faces the full force of the Obama political phenomenon -- a president who feels politically secure enough to ignore the usual rules of the U.S.-Israel relationship and push hard for what he thinks is right.

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