Aluf Benn
Haaretz (Opinion)
August 27, 2010 - 12:00am

The opening of the direct talks with the Palestinians again raises the question: Who is Benjamin Netanyahu? Is he our Gorbachev, a great reformer who will end Israeli rule in the territories? A "Nixon who went to China" - a right-winger who disavowed his former approach and changed the balance of power with a brilliant diplomatic stroke? Or is he the "old Bibi" depicted by his rivals, the illusionist who is afraid of daddy Benzion and wife Sara, the uptight leader who flinches from making decisions and passes time by dribbling the ball?

An examination of Netanyahu's declarations and actions in the 17 months that have passed since his return to power lends support to the first option. The current Netanyahu government is the most dovish Israel has seen since Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. The right-wing leader is displaying far more restraint than his predecessors in using the army and in expanding the settlements. He supports the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel and is now returning to negotiations on a final-status agreement.

Mikhail Gorbachev was elected head of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union in order to salvage an atrophied system. Netanyahu returned to power at the head of a right-wing coalition in order "to preserve the Land of Israel," after Ariel Sharon had "disengaged" from the Gaza Strip and Ehud Olmert planned a further withdrawal from the territories. The first decision he made was to stop the Annapolis process (he called the move a "policy review" ). Gorbachev reexamined the Soviet method and tried to fix it, until it collapsed. Likewise, Netanyahu has found himself at a point he wanted to avoid: negotiations on the "core issues" of Jerusalem, borders and refugees, under the auspices of an American administration striving to end the Israeli occupation in the territories.

But Netanyahu is not being evasive. On the contrary, he is entering the negotiations enthusiastically, after having shaken off the proximity talks the Palestinians forced on him and mustering the support of U.S. President Barack Obama and the Arab League to force direct talks on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Everywhere he goes Netanyahu promises that he is committed to getting an agreement, which implies dividing the country into two states: Israel and Palestine.

Of course, this moderation was effected under pressure, not out of a sudden revelation. Gorbachev and Nixon each also fomented a sea change for lack of choice, after recognizing their own weakness, not because they suddenly adopted their rivals' ideologies. Underlying their shift was an assessment of strategic inferiority.

Domestically, in the absence of competitors, Netanyahu enjoys greater political power than any prime minister in the past generation. But looking outward he fears Israel's growing international isolation and Iran's increasing strength as it draws closer to nuclear capability. The line Netanyahu is pursuing is clear: Israel needs international support, and its relations with the United States take top priority, far more so than right-wing ideology. Whenever Netanyahu encounters a forceful demand by Obama, he obeys.

Understanding the balance

Successful statesmanship involves understanding the balance of power and a readiness to adjust ideology to reality. This was shown by prime ministers from David Ben-Gurion, who withdrew from Sinai immediately after declaring the "third Jewish commonwealth," to Yitzhak Shamir in the Gulf War and the Madrid Conference, and Ariel Sharon, who evacuated the Gaza settlements and disavowed his pronouncement that what goes for Netzarim goes for Tel Aviv, too.

The world media calls Netanyahu's government hard-line, but its right-wing approach is directed toward internal politics. It is reflected in its battle against the political ambitions of Israel's Arab community and left-wing university lecturers. Beyond the separation fence, Netanyahu is behaving like a leftist. In accordance with his character, and as he did in his first term in office, he is using military force sparingly. His responses to cross-border shootings are precise and measured. His entanglement in the Gaza flotilla episode was due to a faulty understanding of the situation, not from an attempt to use excessive force. His testimony before the Turkel Committee, which is investigating that episode, in which he described how the decision to stop the Turkish flotilla was made, showed he gets bored with operational details and does not listen to them. He feels a lot more at home browbeating the United Nations than in divisional exercises or war rooms, and he pays few visits to the Israel Defense Forces. His military curiosity, to the degree that it exists, focuses on strategic air and sea deployment.

His attitude toward the Palestinians is instrumental. Netanyahu is not enchanted by Arab history and culture; the neighbors do not interest him. Nor, contrary to Ariel Sharon, does he hate Arabs. He likes to cross swords with the Palestinians over the historical narrative, to fight for recognition of the Jewish people's deep right to the Land of Israel and Jerusalem. No trust exists between him and Abbas; Netanyahu is entering the negotiations under a cautionary note that there might not be a Palestinian partner.

But practically speaking, the security cooperation with the Palestinian Authority is closer than ever, and the prime minister is working harder than his predecessors did to strengthen the Palestinian economy and to remove checkpoints and roadblocks. As he sees it, the busier the West Bank crossing points are, the less the motivation for terrorist attacks.

Netanyahu built his career on opposing withdrawals and concessions. Even during the last election campaign, he would say in closed meetings that he objected in principle to a Palestinian state. But in his first meeting with Obama as president, in May 2009, he was presented him with a firm demand to stop all construction on the other side of the Green Line, first of all in East Jerusalem. That was the president's "shock and awe" tactic, as recommended by his chief of staff Rahm Emanuel.

Obama was roundly criticized for taking this approach, on the grounds that it gave the Palestinians high hopes for a coerced agreement and encouraged Abbas to avoid direct talks. But Obama's aggressiveness worked wonders with Netanyahu, who gradually accepted the idea of "two states for two peoples." He froze construction in the settlements for 10 months, quietly stopped the building in East Jerusalem, partially lifted the blockade of Gaza and agreed to an international examination of the flotilla episode (via the presence of foreign observers at the Turkel committee and Israeli participation in the team appointed by the UN secretary general ).

Netanyahu also toned down his pronouncements against Iran and forced his cabinet ministers to be quiet and refrain from making counter-threats against Tehran or responding to foreign reports about the looming Iranian bomb. He has not created an emergency atmosphere in Israel and is keeping the military preparations for a confrontation with Iran low profile (there have been unplanned exceptions, such as the helicopter crash in Romania ). Israel's threats to attack Iran are being made indirectly, through foreign media briefings, such as the recent article by Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic magazine. Senior ministers say the coordination and understanding between Israel and the United States over Iran have grown much tighter in the past year, as is evident from the many meetings between the countries' defense heads.

Understanding power

Netanyahu rose to the country's leadership via the United Nations and television. His role model is Theodor Herzl, the father of political Zionism, who fought for the support of the great powers. As a diplomat, Netanyahu understands and appreciates power, as reflected in the slogan he repeated during the Oslo era: "If they give, they will get." This is also the key to understanding his complex relations with Obama.

When Nixon undertook his historic trip to Beijing, he wrote himself a note listing the interests of the United States and China under three headings: "What they want," "What we want" and "What both sides want." (Even by 1972 Nixon had assessed that China, then barely beyond the Cultural Revolution, would become a superpower. )

It would be interesting to know if Netanyahu writes similar notes before visiting the White House. If so, they might say something like, "The president wants Jewish support in the Congressional elections and then in the presidential elections, to show he advanced a Palestinian state, and to avert a regional war. I want to stay in power, thwart the Iranian nuclear project and extract Israel from its international isolation. Both of us want to strengthen the moderate regimes in the Arab states, block Iran's growing power and preserve Israel as America's ward."

In his last encounter with Obama, on July 7, Netanyahu reached an agreement with the president, who publicly called the meeting "excellent." The result was a transition to direct talks with the Palestinians, which are set to begin Thursday in Washington.

American officials said afterward that the prime minister expressed himself in a new way on the Palestinian question. In diplomacy it's always claimed that the other side made the concessions. (China's prime minister, Zhou En-Lai, told the Politburo that Nixon asked to visit China "like a whore all dressed up and knocking at our back door." )

Maybe Netanya hu showed Obama the map of the agreement that he will present to Abbas and the list of settlements to be evacuated. Or maybe - and this is more likely - he made do with vague comments such as "I was not elected just to sit in my chair - I want to foment change," and gave the Nobel Peace Prize laureate a challenge to move to direct talks.

The opening positions that Netanyahu is presenting in the negotiations on "two states for two nations" focus on three demands: security, meaning the demilitarization of the Palestinian state and the deployment of the Israel Defense Forces in the Jordan Valley, in order to prevent heavy weapons and rockets from entering the West Bank; recognition of Israel as "the state of the Jewish people," which the Palestinians are vehemently refusing to do, and allowing the return of Palestinian refugees only to Palestine, not to Israel; and a declaration of "the end of the conflict," to avert future claims by Arabs in the Negev and Galilee for autonomy or independence.

The Palestinians had hoped Obama would force a final-status settlement on Israel. Netanyahu wants Obama to force an interim settlement on the Palestinians that sets borders and security arrangements, wherein the "clauses of the narrative" - the mutual claims for recognition of the state of the Jewish people and the refugees' right of return - neutralize each other and are cleared from the road. The result would be a Palestinian state within temporary borders.

Also interesting is what Netanyahu is not saying. He does not attach security importance to the settlements and does not visit settlements outside the large blocs. His statements on Jerusalem are ambiguous (he recently declared that the city would not be divided, but did not say it would remain entirely under Israeli sovereignty ). All this is before he has sat down even once for a serious talk with Abbas.

Once Nixon arrived in China, he wrote himself a new note, slightly longer, in which he summed up the purpose of his visit: "A tradeoff between Taiwan and Vietnam." America wanted to leave Vietnam with as little humiliation as possible, and China wanted America to remove its troops from the neighboring island.

In the case of Obama and Netanyahu, the deal can be summed up as "Iran in exchange for the settlements." The tougher the line that Washington takes on the Iranian nuclear project, or the more freedom of action it gives Israel, the more Israel will cede in the West Bank. That is the basis for Netanyahu's policy. He views his supreme goal as the prevention of the "second Holocaust" Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is plotting.

Netanyahu needs the talks with the Palestinians in order to breach Israel's international isolation and to strengthen his stance against Iran, and possibly also the legitimacy of a potential future attack. The timetable set for the negotiations - until August 2011 - buys him time and political quiet, after he resolves the crisis that can be expected when the freeze on settlement construction ends.

His abilities as a politician and a diplomat will be put to the test - and he has pretty good cards to play - both with the Palestinians, who want more territory and power in the West Bank, and with his own coalition, which so far has backed his moves. Upon declaring the settlement freeze, Netanyahu promised that when it ends "we will return to the construction policy of previous governments." The two last governments, Sharon's and Olmert's, built only in the settlement blocs - in places where Netanyahu has promised Israel will remain for all time - and blocked development outside the separation fence.

The prime ministers who have entered political processes, from Rabin to Olmert, all went a great deal farther in the talks with the Palestinians than they originally intended. The same pattern will probably repeat itself in Netanyahu's case if the talks continue, as happened to Gorbachev and Nixon. The prime minister understands this and has requested that he be given a chance.

"When you get to be my advanced age, you don't come back to spend time in office. It's not that pleasant anyway," he said last month in New York. "You come back to do something. I'm prepared to do something, and I'm prepared to take risks. I won't take risks with our security, but I'm willing to take political risks."

We'll be watching.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017