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Bibi and the Briar Patch

You have to feel sorry for Benjamin Netanyahu. The Israeli prime minister is in about as tight a spot as a politician can be, backed up to the edge of a cliff, with an avalanche racing toward him. Does he stand still — or jump?

Not literally, of course. That abyss is a leap into the unknown of a peace agreement with a Palestinian state. The approaching avalanche is international anger at Israel’s continued rule over the Palestinians.

When Bibi looks at the peace agreement that’s on the table, he sees Israel pushed back more or less to the pre-1967 Green Line, Jerusalem divided in two and tens of thousands of West Bank settlers uprooted. It would collapse his coalition, tear apart the country, sow a lasting bitterness and perhaps spark civil war. It goes against everything Bibi was raised to believe about Jewish destiny and everything he’s ever preached about Israeli security. In return he would get a fractious Palestinian state next door, some NATO troops guarding the new border and maybe a few new cold-peace treaties with Arab states. His generals say they could defend the narrower border, and they’d welcome not having to police 3 million angry Palestinians in the West Bank. But when was the last time those generals actually won a war?

On the other hand, look what’s coming at him if he stands still: A steadily growing wave of international isolation and hostility. Mounting calls for economic and cultural boycotts. Arrest warrants threatening his ministers and generals abroad, mobs menacing visiting Israeli sports teams, Israeli diplomats chased off foreign campuses. Terrorist ministates on his southern and northern borders, armed to the teeth and itching to open fire, while Iran looms to the east. Israel’s remaining friends cluck sympathetically at all those threats, but say they can’t really help unless Bibi bites the bullet and leaps off that cliff — cedes the West Bank to the Palestinians and thereby, so they argue, defuses the Middle East tinderbox.

They’re telling him he’s got two years to make a deal or the Palestinian leadership won’t be able to hold back its people anymore and all hell will break loose. His allies at home say he should just stand firm and everything will work out somehow. Good luck with that.

Bibi’s default response for years has been to practice what he learned long ago from his political mentor, former prime minister Yitzhak Shamir: Stall. If he stalls long enough, by this doctrine, the world will move on to someone else’s troubles somewhere else. Yes, another threat will emerge sooner or later, because that is the nature of Israeli-Arab coexistence, but we’ll get through that one, too. In the intellectual universe in which Bibi was brought up, the world of Vladimir Jabotinsky’s “iron wall,” the notion that compromise might end the conflict and bring peace is simply, dangerously naive.

That’s not a message Israeli leaders can say aloud in the polite salons of London and Paris these days. The world community, such as it is, operates on the premise that conflicts can be resolved, and Israel, for all its brave talk, needs the world community. Nothing’s to be gained from pontificating that peace is naive, that the conflict is all but permanent. Instead, you ask for a little more time.

Stalling worked for Shamir for seven years, the longest tenure of any Israeli prime minister since David Ben-Gurion. It worked for Bibi, too, during his first term in office, in the 1990s.

The technique isn’t complicated. You tell your international partners that you’re willing to make far-reaching, painful concessions for peace if and when the other side shows itself trustworthy. You tell your own hard-liners not to worry, that nobody’s giving away anything, and besides, the Palestinians can be trusted to make a deal undoable.

Shamir’s genius was that nobody was ever certain which was the real him, not even his closest advisers. Moderates were convinced he was one of them deep down, while hard-liners were sure he was on their side. In the end he dropped the ball when the first President Bush squeezed him too hard and left him no room to maneuver. But he had a good run.

Bibi’s problem for a long time has been just the opposite. Nobody’s sure which side he’s on, but in his case, each side suspects he’s with the other guys. So while the Americans, Europeans and Egyptians are forever pressing him for more, his hard-liners keep squeezing him from the rear, closing off his options, sabotaging even his most benign gestures.

The diplomacy of stalling is a little bit like the American consumer economy. You’re always borrowing time, putting off everyone with promises, explaining why this isn’t the right moment to settle up, asking for another two years, another 10 months. Every time a payment comes due, you borrow from somewhere else. There’s always more credit to be found somewhere.

The trouble right now is that the banks seemed to have closed their windows. There’s a firm deadline coming September 26. That’s when the declared settlement freeze expires. If Bibi renews it, he gets to join the direct talks he’s asking for and to start discussing the 1967 borders while his homefront explodes. If he resumes building, he gets to watch the approaching avalanche — flotillas, war-crimes indictments, boycotts and whatever is next. Maybe arms embargoes, maybe 30,000 Gazans marching on the fence with wire cutters.

Bibi has people on all sides telling him the choice is obvious. Just do it. The way he sees it, it’s not that obvious. He has a point, but that doesn’t help him now. He’s out of time. He’s got to decide who is the real Bibi.

Contact J.J. Goldberg at [email protected]

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