The Times
February 20, 2009 - 1:00am

Israeli prime ministers often achieve most in their second term. Yitzhak Rabin and Yitzhak Shamir were both able to launch the initiatives, garner the political support and conclude the agreements that brought peace closer when they returned to office after an unfocused first round in Israel's bruising political rink. It now looks likely that Binyamin Netanyahu, the leader of the right-wing Likud party, will return to office as prime minister for a second term. Having won the endorsement of Avigdor Lieberman, the nationalist leader of the Yisrael Beitenu party, Mr Netanyahu is in pole position to form the next administration at a dangerous moment in Israel's history.

For the Israeli Left, for the Arabs and for many outside Israel, the return of Mr Netanyahu would be seen as a disaster. He campaigned against any concessions to the Palestinians, playing on popular anger that the recent attacks on Gaza were halted before a decisive rout of Hamas. He has long championed the settlers' cause. And during his first term in office, in 1996-99, he emphasised a policy of three noes: no withdrawal from the Golan Heights, no discussion of Jerusalem and no negotiations under any preconditions. How would a man so uncompromising, so hostile to the basic premise of an independent Palestinian state, ever bring peace?

For the US and the region, let alone the Palestinians, Mr Netanyahu represents an uncertain negotiating partner in another sense. He needs to build a durable government. Even with the support of Mr Lieberman, whose party won 15 seats, he falls well short of a viable coalition in the 120-member Knesset. Either he must rely on the many splinter parties representing the religious and factional interests that have proved so fickle in previous unstable coalitions, or he must bring in Labour or pick off MPs from Kadima. But the policies of Mr Lieberman are anathema to both, to Israel's Arab neighbours and to the 1.5 million Israeli Arabs whom he would deprive of their right to vote if they failed to swear loyalty to the State. Many Israelis and even some Arabs would welcome the ideological clarity of a Netanyahu-led coalition that was open about its aims. Without compromise, however, no government will get off the ground. The Obama Administration, which has already signalled its determination to push forward quickly with fresh proposals for a settlement with the Palestinians, would find it hard to deal with a government of national unity that was, in fact, anything but united.

To find allies ready to accept his discipline, Mr Netanyahu, therefore, must commit himself to a clear vision. The main charge against his first government was opportunism. He swore that he would not deal with Yassir Arafat and then did so. He vowed no withdrawal from the West Bank and then did a deal on Hebron. He promised much to Washington but changed his mind. But pragmatism is the other face of opportunism. Mr Netanyahu was elected to protect Israel's security. He can carry the support of Israelis precisely because they know that he will not sell their safety short. But that security is not enhanced by expanding settlements, ignoring the Palestinians and antagonising Israel's neighbours. It can only be secured by a firm commitment to a negotiated peace. That is the opportunity of a second term.


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