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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress May 24, 2011 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Netanyahu said Israel will not return to the pre-1967 borders.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Barack Obama's and Benjamin Netanyahu's speeches on the Middle East do not directly contradict each other, in spite of the surrounding sound and fury. The crux, however, lies in Mr. Obama's good and true statement that the Palestinians need to credibly explain how Hamas, as a partner in a nascent coalition with Fatah, can take part in negotiations without recognizing Israel's emphatically real right to exist.

Mr. Netanyahu shows little interest in actively presenting that challenging question to the Palestinians, or in engaging with them, however informally and provisionally. Instead, he appears to be persisting in his passive-aggressive reliance on the status quo. The non-viability of that stance is vividly illustrated by the Egyptian plan to open the Gaza crossing on this coming weekend. The ground is shifting.

When Egyptians and other Arabs took to the streets this to demand freedom for themselves, they had no unfriendly intentions toward Israel. But in Egypt as elsewhere, both liberals and Islamist Arabs favour the Palestinians, more sincerely than some of their present and former rulers.

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Hamas is a very real threat, but not an utterly static target. The well justified invasion of Gaza, Hamas's "statelet," in 2008-2009 - under Mr. Netanyahu's predecessor as prime minister, Ehud Olmert - chastened Hamas in some measure, though not nearly enough. This offshoot faction of the Muslim Brotherhood has not been able to improve the lives of the people of Gaza, and it is possible that its rapprochement with Fatah is in part an attempt to recover some popularity in its base.

The structure of the Fatah-Hamas coalition remains unclear, but the Israeli government should be doing its best to communicate, in order to ascertain what this potential interlocutor in a potential peace process consists of. It needs to be assured that Hamas will not keep its separate military wing in the ostensibly reunited Palestinian Authority. And, at the very least, Hamas would have to acknowledge that an agreement with Israel - if any - must include recognition of Israel's right to exist.

Mr. Netanyahu should not content himself with speaking defiantly. He would do well to consult with the Leader of the Opposition, Tzipi Livni, whose political and ideological origins are virtually identical to his own, to develop a suppler policy.

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