His answer? Israel has more maneuvering room with Washington than one may think. Dealing with Washington, he said, is like parallel parking. There's always another inch to back into. And there's always a bumper, the U.S. Jewish community, to cushion the blow.
Israel's current prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, a Shamir disciple, was planning to visit Washington today with an apparently similar approach, but his meeting with President Barack Obama was canceled after Israeli naval commandos conducted a deadly raid on a flotilla of aid ships bound for Gaza Monday, killing nine or more people. The Israeli government says its commandos were attacked first, but aid workers say that's not true.
Monday's incident has set off protests throughout the Middle East and no doubt will raise tensions between Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu when next they do meet. The prime minister already had been quoted in the Israeli press as telling confidants that he has come out victorious in his standoff with Mr. Obama over freezing West Bank and East Jerusalem settlements. He has since denied the alleged comments.
As Mr. Obama tries to engage Mr. Netanyahu in an effort to re-launch the peace process, the prime minister's conduct suggests that he too views the current U.S.-Israeli dynamic as an exercise in dent-the-bumper parking. Mr. Obama should not stand for it.
Mr. Obama must not allow Mr. Netanyahu and his aides to persuade American Jews that the Obama administration is unfriendly to Israel. Mr. Obama has upheld America's commitment to Israeli security with perhaps the strongest military-security support for Israel of any U.S. government in recent history. Just ask the Israeli security establishment. Its chiefs will tell you how forthcoming Mr. Obama has been on updating the "qualitative edge" that Israel enjoys militarily in the region, or on securing congressional funding for Israel's "Iron Dome" short-range missile defense system.
Mr. Obama should re-assert that he is not pushing the Israeli government to do something that is either unreasonable or that violates Israel's interests. Israel needs peace just as much as her Palestinian neighbors. Without a two-state solution to its conflict with the Palestinians, Israel will end up a chaotic, undemocratic bi-national entity. It will lose world support and sink deeper into the immoral morass of occupying another people.
Polls show that most Israelis now realize just how much of a bone in Israel's throat the occupation is. Mr. Obama can help extract this bone. That's what friends do. More than any recent U.S. president, he has the ability to "deliver" the Arab and Muslim world to sweeten an Israeli deal with the Palestinians. Rebuffing Mr. Obama and portraying his efforts as adversarial is a terrible mistake. It is also strategically irresponsible.
Mr. Obama should make it clear that he doesn't see the U.S. Jewish community as Mr. Netanyahu's's "bumper."
Eight of 10 American Jewish voters gave their vote to Mr. Obama. A recent poll shows that 82 percent of American Jews support the United States playing an active role in helping the parties resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. Seventy-three percent of American Jews support an active U.S. role even if it means that America were to publicly state its disagreements with both Israel and the Arabs. It also shows that by a 71 percent to 29 percent margin, American Jews support the United States "exerting pressure" on both Israel and the Arabs to make the necessary compromises for peace.
Mr. Obama should remind Mr. Netanyahu that by moving toward Middle East peace, he would be serving a key U.S. national security interest, and that this too is something that friends do. Mr. Obama should show Mr. Netanyahu that this president can still act decisively to pursue such a key U.S. interest, that he has not yet given up on peace.
Whenever Mr. Netanyahu does touch-park his limo at the White House, it is up to Mr. Obama to demonstrate not only his unyielding support for Israel's security and well-being, but also his determination to continue pushing for Middle East peace, even if it requires playing hardball with intransigent parties to the process.
Ori Nir used to cover Washington for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz and the Jewish Forward. He is now the spokesperson of Americans for Peace Now (www.peacenow.org).