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Netanyahu brings balancing act to Europe

Israel's President Benjamin Netanyahu arrives in Europe on Monday as a leader walking a tightrope — on one side are important foreign allies and on the other an unruly governing coalition.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Benjamin Netanyahu arrives in Britain on Monday as a leader walking a tightrope.

On one hand, the Israeli prime minister faces a firm international front demanding a full halt to his country's four-decade-old settlement enterprise. Netanyahu has heard that demand and will almost certainly hear it again from all three of the key people he is slated to meet in Europe this week: British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the representative of Israel's closest ally, U.S. Mideast envoy George Mitchell.

Flouting the international community will demand a diplomatic cost Israel can ill afford to pay.

But at home, Netanyahu's partners in an unruly governing coalition are pulling him in the opposite direction and are suspicious of any sign of compromise. Crossing them could unravel his hold on power.

Pulling him to the right
In recent weeks, some of Netanyahu's allies have been doing their best to draw him to the right. A group of his Cabinet ministers paid a supportive visit to an unauthorized settlement outpost in the West Bank — even though Netanyahu has promised to remove such wildcat settlements — and called on the prime minister to ignore President Barack Obama's call to stop building homes for Jews on land the Palestinians want for a future state.

Netanyahu's four-day visit to London and Berlin is likely to showcase the tricky balancing act on which his political survival depends.

Netanyahu, who has weathered decades in the often brutal arena of Israeli politics, knows a thing or two about maneuvering, but this particular balancing act is likely to require all of his considerable political skill. Both Israel's friends abroad and Netanyahu's domestic allies will be carefully watching him to see who gets shortchanged.

"It's very clear that his goal is not to lose his coalition and not to fight with Obama," said Israeli political analyst Hanan Crystal. "The question is, how do you stop settlements while preventing the toppling of the government?"

The answer, Crystal said, is likely to be apparent soon when Netanyahu announces some form of compromise with the U.S. and "winks" at his hard-line allies at home. "He's an expert at winking," Crystal said.

Israeli government officials say that one compromise being discussed would see Israel freeze building except for 2,500 units currently under construction. They spoke on condition of anonymity because details of the talks between Israel and the U.S. are secret.

Settler numbers double
The number of Israeli settlers in the West Bank — home to some 2.5 million Palestinians — has more than doubled since the mid-1990s and now stands at around 300,000.

Netanyahu has comprised some since taking office in March, after winning an election on a hard-line platform and putting together a government in which he is one of the more moderate voices.

He first endorsed the formation of a Palestinian state, a major reversal after years of opposing the idea, though it came with strict conditions. And last week, Netanyahu's housing minister said Israel had temporarily stopped granting approval for new building projects in the West Bank.

After that announcement, Obama said he was "encouraged by some of the things I am seeing on the ground," an indication, perhaps, that the sides are getting close to a compromise. Netanyahu's meeting with Mitchell on Wednesday, the key encounter of his trip, is meant to bring such an agreement even closer.

But the halt in approvals for new building was seen by Netanyahu's critics as little more than a maneuver. The settlement watchdog group Peace Now said Sunday that there has been no real slowdown in construction and that settlers can keep building indefinitely, using plans that have already been approved.

Netanyahu has also taken steps to improve life for Palestinians in the West Bank. With the territory enjoying a period of calm, some military checkpoints have been lifted, permits for importing raw materials are being granted, and there are other signs that life there is gradually assuming a semblance of normalcy.

The Palestinians say that is no replacement for political independence and have refused to renew peace talks until the Israelis freeze settlement construction.
Shlomo Avineri, a prominent Israeli political scientist who headed the Foreign Ministry in the 1970s under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, termed Netanyahu's Europe trip a "holding action."

"He's not expecting agreement, but expecting understanding for his political difficulties in finding a formula that can satisfy his own government and satisfy the international community," Avineri said.