Benjamin Netanyahu: Israel’s Man of Mystery

Good Fences

By J.J. Goldberg

Published December 09, 2009, issue of December 18, 2009.
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Indications are growing that Benjamin Netanyahu, champion of the Israeli right, might just be the prime minister who makes history by leading his country, Nixon-to-China style, into lasting peace agreements with its neighbors. Fans and critics alike point to his dramatic gestures in recent months — embracing Palestinian statehood and freezing settlement construction — as signs that Netanyahu is ready to go where no prime minister has gone before.

On the other hand, it’s equally possible that nothing of the sort is in the offing. Many observers believe — hawks happily, doves glumly — that the prime minister’s gestures fall hopelessly short of the minimum any Palestinian leadership could accept, and thus effectively quash any hope of a compromise peace agreement. Some say that’s exactly what Bibi has in mind; others suspect he has simply overestimated his personal powers of persuasion.

Where he’s really headed is downright inscrutable. Is he actually ready to make the compromises most observers believe necessary to close a peace deal? Naively betting that he can bargain the Palestinians down to his terms? Making a show of flexibility in order to preserve the status quo and shift the blame to the Palestinians? Each theory has its adherents, but the truth is that nobody really knows at this point — probably not even Bibi himself.

Netanyahu was elected 10 months ago on a wave of popular disillusionment with peace-processing. For four years the Kadima-led governments of Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert had tried to show good will by withdrawing from Gaza and negotiating with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. The results, as Kadima’s opponents saw it, were Hamas rule in Gaza, relentless rocket attacks, two inconclusive wars and mounting international isolation. Voters seemed to agree. Last February’s Knesset elections were dominated by Netanyahu’s Likud and smaller parties to its right, all promising to stop the giveaways and get tough.

Optimists on the center-left point to Bibi’s tough talk during the campaign, not to mention his lifelong reputation as an uncompromising hard-liner, and conclude that his new tone is nothing less than an epiphany. The turnabout has allowed his defense minister, Labor Party leader Ehud Barak, to silence Labor rebels agitating to leave the coalition. Haaretz’s Ari Shavit wrote December 4 that Netanyahu was “positioning himself to the left of Rabin,” the assassinated icon of the left.

“Unlike Rabin,” Shavit wrote, “Netanyahu now accepts the establishment of a demilitarized Palestinian state. Unlike Rabin, he is issuing orders prohibiting construction throughout the Jewish West Bank. Netanyahu has crossed the Rubicon, on both ideological and practical levels, and reinvented himself as a centrist.”

Settlers and their supporters on the right draw the same conclusion, and they’re furious. Netanyahu relied on them as his core base of support during the election campaign last winter, promising to stand firm against international pressure to cede the West Bank and permit a Palestinian state. Now, less than a year later, he has betrayed them, they say. In response, settlement leaders have begun physically barring entry to government inspectors checking on compliance with the freeze. Some confrontations have turned violent. Security officials fear much worse is to come.

Closer to the seat of power, some of Israel’s leading hawks are backing Netanyahu’s concessions because, ironic as it may sound, they trust him enough to believe he’s faking. Six of the seven ministers in his inner security cabinet voted to back the construction freeze, including super-hawks Benny Begin, Moshe Yaalon and Avigdor Lieberman. Critical to their support were the freeze’s built-in exemptions: the 10-month time limit, clearances for thousands of projects already underway and the exclusion of East Jerusalem. These, the hard-liners assume, are deal-breakers that will prevent the freeze from winning Palestinian support and turning into a full-fledged peace process. In their view, the point of the exercise is to keep Washington happy, not to bring compromise with the Palestinians.

That’s precisely how the freeze is seen in Europe and elsewhere, which is why Washington’s partners in the Middle East Quartet, Russia and the European Union, have resisted American pressure to endorse the freeze as a step toward peace. Indeed, the European Union’s answer was a December 8 statement bluntly calling for a freeze in East Jerusalem. The statement called for Jerusalem to be shared as the capital of both Israel and the future Palestine.

The Palestinians, for their part, rejected the freeze outright, calling it “insufficient” because of its 10-month limit and the exclusion of Jerusalem. Yasser Abed Rabbo, a senior aide to Abbas, said the freeze was a “political maneuver” meant to sidestep international calls for a total settlement halt and to buy time for further construction in Jerusalem.

Netanyahu’s own behavior after the freeze announcement has been a study in ambiguity. He has repeatedly called on the Palestinian Authority to accept the freeze as a token of his sincere desire for peace and to return to negotiations. And yet, at a December 2 meeting with Likud Party leaders, according to participants, he said the Americans “drove me crazy” with their pressure for a freeze. (His office denied it.) He told his Cabinet on December 6 that the freeze was a clear sign of “who wants peace and who doesn’t.” At a meeting with Likud Knesset members just before the Cabinet session, he declared that the freeze would end in 10 months even if peace talks are underway, “even if Abbas declares ‘peace now.’”

So which is the real Bibi? Is he an earnest peacemaker or a manipulative cynic? Is he courting the Palestinians or just dodging the White House?

A third answer is suggested by one of Israel’s savviest political operators, power attorney Dov Weissglas, who was chief of staff to then-prime minister Sharon. In a December 7 essay in Yediot Aharonot, Weissglas called the freeze decision a sign that Netanyahu was beginning to grasp Israel’s “steadily worsening diplomatic reality.”

“No one in the world agrees to Israel’s presence in a majority of the Judea and Samaria territories and the continued construction there,” Weissglas wrote. “Israeli persistence will bring upon it diplomatic isolation, and this is something that Israel cannot afford. The freeze plan is an attempt to avoid this.”

Contact J.J. Goldberg at goldberg@forward.com and follow his blog at blogs.forward.com/jj-goldberg


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