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Netanyahu's Power Play Creates New Opportunities

By: Jack Rosen

Chairman, American Council for World Jewry; Chairman, American Jewish Congress


In hindsight, the agreement that brought the largest opposition party in Israel into Prime Minister Netanyahu's government should have been relatively easy to predict. He now governs with a huge majority of 94 out of 120 members of the Knesset on his side, confirming that he is Israel's strongest leader at least since the late Yitzhak Rabin.

Netanyahu has made it clear to friend and foe alike that even as pervasive political and economic instability puts every incumbent at risk throughout the west, and upheavals in the middle east upend old regimes, he isn't going anywhere. Backing for his new government extends far beyond his own base, and that of the small parties that typically hold hostage Israel's prime ministers to narrow agendas. For the foreseeable future, Netanyahu is unchallenged.

In Israel, the excitement across the broad center of the population stems in large part from the promise that key domestic issues that have festered for years may be resolvable. These have to do with budget priorities, finding alternative avenues for the orthodox community to fulfill military service, and achieving consensus on the best way to remedy the election law for Prime Minister.

But the larger strategic questions -- derailing Iran's nuclear weapons program and achieving peace with the Palestinians -- understandably have received all the attention from the international community. And it's through this prism that the move to bring into the fold the centrist Kadima party reveals Netanyahu's underlying strength all along.

Most of the world lives under the misconception that Israel is determined to use military force to stop Iran's drive to acquire nukes. For a country that has not known a day of peace in its 64 year existence, with virtually no family untouched by the tragedy of war, Israelis are anything but cavalier about having to use force. On the other hand, they have learned through the years that their security depends on their own resolve and they remain steadfast in making whatever sacrifices are required.

In the case of Iran, the Israeli political establishment, accurately representing the large majority of the population, is telling the world that a unity government with Netanyahu in the lead is once again ready to do what is needed to protect the nation.

This provides President Obama a useful stick in his diplomatic toolkit. His hope -- that a united international community supporting strong sanctions can persuade Tehran to forego its nuclear weapons program -- relies on Iran coming to believe further intransigence has dire consequences. The threat of force in this instance is an indispensable diplomatic weapon to address what the president has identified as a threat to U.S. national security.

It's a stunning irony to note that much of the Sunni Arab world, no less concerned than Israel about the repercussions of a nuclear Iran, is pleased to see Netanyahu consolidate and expand his power, so long as President Obama skillfully deploys the full arsenal in his tool kit.

If all this doesn't concentrate the minds of Iran's leaders, nothing will.

With respect to the peace process with the Palestinians, pressure for action may flow in the other direction, as Netanyahu's broad coalition is well suited to make serious proposals and enter into a genuine give and take without fear of political retribution from some of Israel's rightist, ideological parties. Netanyahu's position in favor of the two-state solution now has significant support both in and out of government.

But just when Israel may be ready, especially if President Obama succeeds in persuading Iran to back down, the president understandably is focused on the economy and his reelection. Neither is there any evidence President Mahmoud Abbas is prepared to come to the negotiating table without preconditions, though the empowerment of Israel's Prime Minister may rearrange the diplomatic chessboard sufficiently for the Palestinians to finally recognize that an opportunity not to be missed is at hand.

After years of false starts, misunderstandings, political weakness and lack of trust in the three-way relationship, Netanyahu's political power play may be the one bright note in a season of otherwise dismal and deadly developments in the middle east.

Skeptics abound, but come 2013, the stars may well be aligned to produce a new environment for progress, but only if President Obama makes good on his pledge to stop Iran before it acquires nukes.

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