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Netanyahu's friends say his decade in the political wilderness has matured him. He was adroit, for example, in stitching together a coalition that stretches from the right-wing Zionist and religious parties to Labor on the left. But a friend of Netanyahu's, the novelist Eyal Megged, says the Prime Minister's hard-line ideology has not mellowed. "He identifies with Churchill," says Megged, "as a defender of his country in times of peril."
Netanyahu's patriotism was forged by his days as an élite special-forces commando and by the death of his older brother Jonathan, who was killed while commanding the Entebbe raid in 1976 to rescue hijacked Israelis in Uganda. Yet for all his hawkishness, Netanyahu possesses a streak of realism. During his first term as Prime Minister, he turned Hebron over to Palestinians (though a contingent of militant Jewish settlers has taken root there, paralyzing life for many of the city's Palestinians). Tony Blair, the special envoy of the Quartet powers to the Middle East, was struck by Netanyahu's pragmatism when the two men met recently. Obama came away with a similar impression last July during a brief stop in Jerusalem. While shaking hands, he told Netanyahu, "I'm perceived as coming from the left, and you're perceived as coming from the right. But we're both more practical than people give us credit for."
Obama will accentuate the practical in Washington. Israelis say they expect him to argue that to bring the Arab world on board for sanctions against Iran--as Netanyahu wants--it will help if Israel fulfills its pledges to the Palestinians, by either freezing or removing Jewish settlements and reducing the checkpoints that cripple the movement of Palestinians inside the West Bank. Obama is expected to point out that U.S.-sponsored efforts to set up a professional Palestinian security force in the cities of Nablus, Hebron, Jenin and Jericho have restored a measure of calm. According to Israeli sources, Netanyahu will offer a familiar counterargument: with Hamas in control of Gaza and with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' popularity on the wane in the West Bank, Israel has no responsible partners among the Palestinians. "Netanyahu will tell Obama, why should he risk civil unrest--Israeli soldiers fighting Jewish settlers--if the Palestinians can't keep up their end of the bargain?" says a source close to Netanyahu's Cabinet. But that is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Abbas' credibility is sliding--and Hamas' gaining--because Israel is stalling on concessions to the Palestinians.
On Iran, Netanyahu and Obama may not be so far apart. Both Israel and the U.S. say negotiations with Iran must be explored before sanctions are imposed or, if all else fails, a military strike is authorized. But the two sides differ on their reading of Iran's timetable. Israeli security forces estimate that Iran will have enough enriched uranium for a nuclear test "within months," while U.S. experts say Iran will cross that threshold in early 2011. It will take Iran many more months, or perhaps years, to attach a nuclear warhead to a missile capable of hitting Israel, which has a formidable nuclear arsenal of its own.