Edmund Sanders <br />
The Los Angeles Times
September 13, 2010 - 12:00am

Israelis have seen it before. A hawkish leader expected to be tough on the Palestinian issue instead embarks on a game-changing path to end the conflict. Menachem Begin did it. So did Yitzhak Rabin. Ariel Sharon split apart his right-wing Likud Party by withdrawing from the Gaza Strip.

Now, with the second round of new peace talks set to open Tuesday, Israelis are wondering whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a tough-talking longtime critic of the peace process, is preparing to be the next to seek a deal with the Palestinians, or whether he is going through the motions to appease the U.S. so that he won't be blamed for the collapse of the Washington-brokered talks.

The answer will determine not only the fate of the direct talks, but also the future of Netanyahu's coalition government.

Until recently, few Israelis held much hope for the negotiations. Skeptics doubted Netanyahu's commitment, saying strong U.S. pressure was pushing the prime minister to say and do things he didn't really mean, such as endorsing a two-state solution last year.

But since the launch of direct talks in Washington this month, some see a further shift in Netanyahu's tone.

During a Sept. 2 appearance with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Netanyahu — who had expressed doubts about Abbas' ability to deliver a peace deal — turned dramatically to his counterpart and called him a "partner for peace." He went on to refer to the "West Bank," rather than the biblical term "Judea and Samaria," which most conservative Israelis prefer.

Then, on Monday, Netanyahu hinted for the first time that he's open to limited restrictions on West Bank housing construction after the current partial moratorium expires at the end of the month.

Speculation has raged in the Israeli news media and among political analysts, reflected in such headlines as "Our PM is Taking a New Course," "A New Year, A New Bibi?," " Israel's Right Wing Might Have Reason to Start Worrying" and "Netanyahu at Crossroads."

Netanyahu, who is often portrayed in the news media here as a bland, overly cautious ideologue satisfied with running a status quo government, is now being compared to a Richard Nixon who goes to China.

"We may be witnessing the beginning of the kind of transformation that has occurred in three previous Israel prime ministers, where tough men have basically broken their own taboos and turned around to do something historic with the Palestinians," said Aaron David Miller, a former Clinton administration peace negotiator and now at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.

Miller cautioned that only time will tell whether Netanyahu is heading in the same direction, but said that the "possibility of his conversion is the newest and most unpredictable element. Ironically, Netanyahu, the guy least committed to the peace process, now holds the keys to its success."

How Netanyahu handles the coming standoff over West Bank settlement construction will offer the first glimpse. "It's key to keeping the process alive," Miller said. "It gets him into the big game. The question then becomes, what does he do?"

Palestinians have threatened to walk out of peace talks if West Bank construction resumes, while Israel's right-wing political parties have threatened to quit Netanyahu's government if building doesn't continue. In his first comments on the issue in weeks, Netanyahu spoke this week about "midway" options, though he gave no details.

A possible compromise could permit limited construction on land seized by Israel after the 1967 Middle East War, but only in Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem and in large settlements that are expected to remain part of Israel after a Palestinian state is created.

It's unclear whether such an arrangement would silence the complaints of either Palestinians or right-wing Israelis. One lawmaker from the conservative National Union party, which is part of Netanyahu's coalition, reacted to the prime minister's proposal Monday by calling him "spineless."

For Netanyahu, losing control of his coalition — one of Israel's most stable in years — remains the biggest risk of embarking on peace talks. The prime minister's recent statement that Palestinians must recognize Israel as a "Jewish" state — something that Abbas has refused to do — is seen by some as an attempt to appease his right flank.

"I think the politics for Prime Minister Netanyahu is very difficult," President Obama said during a news conference last week.

For many right-wing Israeli politicians, the settlement issue has become a litmus test of how far Netanyahu is willing to go and whether he is charting a new direction for himself. Several noted that Netanyahu, who typically consults closely with key Cabinet members, known as the Forum of Seven, had recently canceled meetings or cut off debate regarding peace negotiations.

Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom, a member of Netanyahu's Likud Party, is among those who have publicly complained about the prime minister's sudden secretiveness. But Shalom expressed doubt that Netanyahu is changing course.

"I really don't believe that he will move down a new path," Shalom said. At the same time, Shalom warned that an extension of the construction freeze "might bring a coalition crisis and take us out of the [peace negotiation] track that we are marching through right now."

Past Israeli governments that made bold moves toward resolving the Palestinian issue tended to collapse and face early elections. In four out of six cases, according to Shalom's count, those governments lost in the next vote. In Rabin's case, he lost his life, assassinated by a right-wing Israeli extremist opposed to the Oslo peace accords Rabin had signed.

With Netanyahu sending somewhat mixed signals, some think he hasn't yet made up his mind.

Zalman Shoval, a Likud foreign policy advisor and former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., said speculation about a Netanyahu "transformation" was exaggerated, but an evolution in the prime minister's thinking might explain his new openness to a peace deal.

"Netanyahu was never this far-right, rabid ideologue," Shoval said. "He was always a pragmatist, and security was always his No. 1 concern."

Over the last decade, the most pressing security threats to Israel have expanded to include Iran's nuclear ambitions and post-Sept. 11 global Islamic militancy, which in some ways have overshadowed the Palestinian threat, he said.

"Security is no longer only about where the settlements are or checkpoints will be," Shoval said. "So if Netanyahu has changed with regard to strategy, it's because the world has changed too."


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