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Opinion: Netanyahu falls into character

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was right back to his old self Monday.

At a press conference after his first meeting with President Barack Obama in the White House, he dragged his feet just as he did in his first term as prime minister when President Bill Clinton was in office.

Back then, Clinton was desperately trying to put back together the pieces of a peace process shattered by the assassin’s bullet from an Israeli settler that killed Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister and Nobel Peace Prize laureate who had made the bold step toward peace with the Palestinians.

Once again Netanyahu is in power, and once again he is cautiously eyeing the political terrain back home in Israel rather than looking toward the future and that place on the horizon where he needs to lead his country. He carefully avoided using the phrase “two states” even though every prime minister before him — even the hard-right leader Ehud Olmert — has reluctantly come to accept the words and the idea behind them.

And the only thing that all these careful calculations show is that Netanyahu does not have the bold confidence of a Rabin, he does not have the character that an Israeli leader needs to make a breakthrough in peace negotiations.

And in so doing he lost the initiative yesterday.  So many diplomats in Washington and Jerusalem, and even Amman, Jordan, had given him the benefit of the doubt. And there were whispers and even flat out statements from his own defense secretary, the former prime minister Ehud Barak, that he would say something bold and surprise us all. Many wise observers hold that this is still possible.

But on Monday it didn't happen. 

Instead, the differences between the U.S. and Israeli policies were made more stark. Obama wants a Palestinian state; Netanyahu refuses to put together the words "two" and "states." He prefers to speak about how to prevent the Palestinians from establishing a second Gaza in the West Bank, requiring them to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, and security arrangements. Obama said that settlement building must come to a halt. Netanyahu responded by saying that Palestinians must provide "reciprocity."

Obama pushed ahead, saying that he wanted a two state solution and making it perfectly clear that he wanted an end to settlement expansion. He also said that he believed he would be in talks with Iran within a year.

Obama seems to be unwilling to wait for Netanyahu, and it is a wise diplomatic move, even for a strong ally. The Israeli and Palestinian people have been waiting too long for the peace and security they desire. America should not tolerate any more delays in following a road map that long ago made it clear where the road ends: with two states.