Ethan Bronner
The New York Times
September 1, 2010 - 12:00am

David Rubinger, one of Israel’s best-known photojournalists and a man firmly on the political left, cast his ballot last year for Benjamin Netanyahu for prime minister, the first time he had ever voted for the right-leaning Likud Party.

“The left wants to make peace but cannot, while the right doesn’t want to but, if forced to, can do it,” he said in an interview. “So last year I decided to vote not with my heart but with my head.”

As Mr. Netanyahu joins Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, at the State Department on Thursday to start direct peace negotiations, Mr. Rubinger’s theory — and it is not his alone — will be tested. Will the Israeli leader who built a career opposing a Palestinian state be the one to help bring it into being?

In some fashion, that is Mr. Netanyahu’s own claim — that only someone like himself, with hawkish credentials, can and will produce lasting peace because only such a leader can bring his people with him.

“I intend to confound the critics and the skeptics,” Mr. Netanyahu said in July at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. At age 60 and in his second tour as prime minister, Mr. Netanyahu, who grew up partly outside Philadelphia and graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says he did not return to power for the pleasure of it. It is not that pleasurable, he notes, and he aims to get something important done.

Even more than his own aides, Mr. Netanyahu seems to believe that a deal can be reached under his guidance. He does not want to hand the negotiations over to committees of experts but to meet personally with Mr. Abbas every two weeks.

“The prime minister is much more optimistic than I am,” one of his top aides said. “He has made an internal calculation that he is ready to make an agreement.”

One sign of that readiness is that it was Mr. Netanyahu who suggested that the talks be kept to a relatively short, one-year time frame, according to American and Israeli officials. Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who is from the left-leaning Labor Party, told the newspaper Haaretz, “If Netanyahu leads a process, a significant number of rightist ministers will stand with him.”

But it may also be, as critics on the left maintain, that Mr. Netanyahu is focused assiduously on projecting an image of peacemaker in order to keep the Obama administration on his side for the issue he cares about most — combating Iran. It remains unclear whether the terms of any two-state agreement he seeks can be made acceptable to the Palestinians.

Mr. Netanyahu has often said that he has three requirements for a deal. The potential for mass smuggling of rockets and other weapons into the Palestinian state must be avoided, Israel must be recognized as the state of the Jewish people by the Palestinian leadership, and the accord must declare a complete end to the conflict. After Tuesday night’s murder by Hamas of four Israeli settlers, Mr. Netanyahu’s focus on the need for security may carry more weight.

Speaking in the White House on Wednesday evening, Mr. Netanyahu said it was crucial that any land Israel turned over for a Palestinian state would not become a “third Iranian-sponsored enclave aimed at the heart of Israel.”

Mr. Abbas has not accepted any of the conditions and has his own set of concerns, notably the need to end Israeli settlement building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes in what is today Israel. Mr. Netanyahu has flatly rejected those.

Given how little common ground the two leaders have, the outlook for the negotiations has been pessimistic. In addition, Mr. Netanyahu’s governing coalition is mostly to his political right, meaning it could be hard for him to offer the Palestinians much while keeping his government together.

Few political analysts believe that he is willing to risk his coalition by shedding right-wing parties like Shas and Yisrael Beiteinu and putting together a new government with Kadima, the center-left party of the opposition that favors the peace talks. “Netanyahu doesn’t want to risk his position as leader of the right,” said Yohanan Plesner, a member of Parliament from Kadima.

Some in Kadima expect — and hope — that the negotiations will destroy both Likud and the coalition if Mr. Netanyahu takes steps toward the Palestinians. Others, however, say that Kadima itself is vulnerable and that Mr. Netanyahu could lure a good portion of the party into Likud, thereby destroying the opposition.

Either way, Mr. Netanyahu appears to be in an unusually strong position politically. “Netanyahu is at the pinnacle of his political power in a way that no one has been in a generation,” Aluf Benn, an editor and columnist for Haaretz, said on Army Radio on Tuesday. “He has no rival. He can do what he wants.”

While most on the left fear that means Mr. Netanyahu will do little or nothing in the peace talks, Mr. Benn has taken the contrarian position of arguing that Mr. Netanyahu could be Israel’s Mikhail S. Gorbachev. Like Mr. Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union who unexpectedly oversaw its breakup, Mr. Netanyahu could be history’s surprise choice to oversee Israel’s withdrawal from the West Bank.

Udi Segal, a television correspondent who joined Mr. Benn on Army Radio, said he did not believe that Mr. Netanyahu dreamed of removing settlements or establishing a Palestinian state as his legacy. But if an opportunity presented itself that would help Israel escape a growing international isolation, “It’s hard for me to see him saying no,” Mr. Segal said. “He’s a pragmatic person who has a chance to get an agreement.”

Many analysts say that Mr. Netanyahu’s central concern is his relationship with the United States. This is partly because Mr. Netanyahu believes that the most significant challenge facing Israel is an Iranian nuclear weapon. To prevent Iran from developing such a weapon, or to attack it if prevention is not possible, he needs as much American and European support as possible. If that means a deal with the Palestinians, fine, so long as it does not facilitate Iranian influence in the West Bank through its sponsorship of Hamas.

Others say that Mr. Netanyahu’s intimate circle and background make it hard for him to stray far from the ideology in which he grew up. His 100-year-old father, Benzion Netanyahu, a scholar of the Spanish Inquisition, is a strong right-wing advocate, as is the prime minister’s wife, Sara.

Despite that background and other similar credentials — he was a special operations commando in the Israeli Army, fought in two wars and has a commanding public presence — some say he is more susceptible to pressure than one would expect.

“The Americans know this well,” said Haim Assa. “The question is how heavy a hammer they are willing to use.”


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