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Pragmatism ​at Play

May 7, 2009
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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stumped the pundits this week, welcoming negotiations with the Palestinians, giving tacit support to a congressional letter calling for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and appointing a widely respected moderate as his ambassador to the United States.

His pledge that he is committed to negotiations with the Palestinians was made via satellite to the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby.

"We are prepared to resume negotiations without any preconditions," Netanyahu said, describing a "triple track" approach that will tackle political, security and economic issues.

Netanyahu is due to meet with President Barack Obama in mid-May. The blogosphere is full of predictions that this first encounter will exacerbate differences over how to approach issues such as Israeli-Palestinian relations and the threat of a nuclear Iran.

There will, no doubt, be disagreements, particularly over the question of settlements in the West Bank. Vice President Joseph Biden made clear during his AIPAC address this week that the Obama administration expects Israel to take concrete steps.

"Israel must work toward a two-state solution, not build settlements, dismantle outposts and allow Palestinians access to freedom of movement," he said.

Israeli President Shimon Peres countered that there is no way to stop natural growth: "Israel cannot instruct settlers in existing settlements not to have children or get married."

In meetings with Obama, Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Peres that Netanyahu was committed to previous agreements that bind Israel to a two-state solution.

AIPAC, in turn, dispatched thousands of lobbyists to Capitol Hill to push letters to Obama calling for a "viable Palestinian state living side by side with Israel."

As relations evolve, Israel will likely be well-served by Netanyahu's surprise pick for ambassador to the United States.

Michael Oren is a dual U.S.-Israel citizen who is also a visiting professor at Georgetown University in Washington. He is a well-respected scholar who has written books on the 1967 Six-Day War and the history of America's interests in Israel and the Mideast.

Oren is a senior fellow at the Shalem Center, generally seen as a conservative think tank. But he supported Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, and has also advocated withdrawing from much of the West Bank -- a position that Netanyahu has rejected.

Some have suggested that Oren's appointment is meant to present the "softer" side of the Netanyahu government, especially in contrast to his more strident foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman.

Taken together, this week's developments suggest that Netanyahu's well-known pragmatism is at work. With all of its current challenges, that's just what Israel needs right now. 

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