Aaron David Miller
Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (Analysis)
September 10, 2010 - 12:00am

Of all the questions hovering over next week’s Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in Egypt, the most intriguing and consequential are these: who is Benjamin Netanyahu, and is he willing to break his sacred taboos on issues like Jerusalem and borders to reach a historic agreement with the Palestinians? As important as Obama and Abbas are to the negotiations, Netanyahu is the key. Indeed, it is the cruelest of ironies that the man who has been least committed to serious Israeli-Palestinian negotiations now holds the key to their success.

The answers to these questions will not come quickly or easily. It’s very likely that the prime minister does not yet know them himself. For a long while now, Netanyahu, the tough talking Likud politician, has been at war with Netanyahu, only the fourth Israeli prime minister to serve twice in non-consecutive terms, and a leader who fashions himself as a historic figure leading Israel out of the shadow of the Iranian bomb and to peace with the Arabs.

These negotiations, like their predecessors, are likely to have a slow and uneven rhythm. September will be the month to determine whether the moratorium on settlements will be extended without causing a crisis in the negotiations; October will witness more rounds of talks; in the wake of the November mid-terms, Netanyahu will assess how badly weakened President Obama is politically; Obama, looking to 2012, will calculate how much political capital he can afford to invest in the peace process; and December may bring a presidential visit to Israel now long overdue.

The moment of truth for Netanyahu—as well as the negotiations—probably will not come until early next year. Either the possibility of progress or an impasse in the negotiations may force the administration to act, perhaps putting out its own ideas or even a plan on the core issues. Then we will see, assuming the Palestinians are ready and able to meet Israeli needs on security and recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, whether Netanyahu is a Begin or a Rabin and moves from politician to statesmen and into the realm of history.


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