Sunday, August 7, 2011

Netanyahu's decision: he will gamble with the family jewels

Just five weeks ago, Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to be facing two bad diplomatic choices: yield to US pressure to accept pre-1967 borders as a starting point for ‘peace’ negotiations with the Palestinian Authority (PA), or say no to this proposal—and face a threat that a displeased US President might refuse to veto an upcoming PA statehood initiative in the UN, thereby leaving Israel naked and exposed. 
In a sense, he appeared damned if did and damned if he didn’t.
But as of August 3, 2011, we see that Mr Netanyahu has created for himself a third choice:  he has told the US that he will accept the pre-1967 borders as a negotiation starting point but he also requires concessions from the PA—they must accept Israel as a Jewish state, and they must accept that the final result of negotiations will be two states for two peoples.

It’s a high-risk strategy. It could backfire, for if Abbas accepts these conditions, Netanyahu’s government could fall, leaving Israel in turmoil at the very moment it needs to stand united and strong. But, paradoxically, it might also be his best option, for two reasons: first, national leaders do not change stripes at times of high stress. Instead, they fall back on known paradigms, known behaviour patterns: Netanyahu has always sought to appease the US, and he will do so now; he will not change his comfort zone just as he faces what could be his greatest challenge.
The second reason he will not change his behaviour could be more important: he may not be the same Prime Minister we saw before his May trip to the US. There is reason to believe that he has found his (Likud) compass even as he gambles with the family jewels.  Indeed, he may be gambling precisely because he has found his compass.

To understand this possibility, recall the events of February and March, 2011.  When the US cast its first UN veto ever (for Israel) in February—to kill the ‘settlements are illegal’ resolution—it is my opinion that the US President became extraordinarily angry. He showed that anger to a number of American Jewish leaders in a March White House meeting—an anger which was reported to have stunned some of those present—and I believe that he also treated our Prime Minister, privately, to an equally extraordinary tongue-lashing that was so severe, so uniquely hostile and so brutal that Mr Netanyahu was left not just stunned, but frightened.
We saw it.  Look at Mr Netanyahu’s decisions, statements and actions in early March, 2011—right after interactions with Mr Obama and Mrs. Clinton: he presided over a meeting to destroy selected West Bank outposts;  after Jewish homes at Gilad Farm were destroyed, he spoke with uncharacteristically harsh criticism of Jewish ‘nationalists’; he successfully pressured Likud MKs to vote against a Knesset effort to remove Ehud Barak’s control over Judea and Samaria (so that settlement construction decisions would be taken away from Barak); and he saw to it that  Jewish building plans for East Jerusalem were (at least momentarily) cancelled.  All of this happened in the same ten-day period in early March, and together indicate that he was reacting to the President’s anger in a manner that suggested that, if aggressively bullied, he would indeed acquiesce to US pressure.

People sometime say that  ‘adversity builds character’, but that is not true: adversity does not build character; it reveals character—and I believe that, in the three months following  that US veto, Mr Netanyahu struggled to find his ‘character’:  would he remain frightened and bullied, and cave in to a hostile United States, or  would he fight back (as a true Likud-nik)? 
At first, he hesitated. He revealed nothing. During the first two weeks of March, there were public moments when he seemed cowed. Then, nine weeks later, his ‘character’ crisis peaked: after being told by Washington that there would be no new ground broken during his May 2011 visit, the PM was informed—as he reportedly boarded his plane-- that US President Obama was about to ambush him with an unscheduled speech at the US State Department, to announce a plan to tell Israel to go back to pre-1967 borders before negotiations with the PA even began.

Our PM had been bullied in February and March; now, in May, he was being ambushed.
Suddenly, this insult— the bullying capped by the ambush—became more than just another diplomatic problem for Mr. Netanyahu. It was something much more personal. It was an absolute test of character, the type of test that might happen only once or twice in a man’s lifetime, and his response could strip him naked in public as he faced the prospect of being forced to reveal his most private, intimate inner self while on foreign soil, on someone else’s turf.

Who was he--Pillsbury doughboy or the Leader of a proud but beleaguered Jewish people?  He had to decide; he could hesitate no longer. When his plane landed in Washington no one could predict how he would respond to this challenge; but then, when he spoke to Obama in the Oval Office, we saw his decision: at that moment, in that august Office, in front of the most powerful man in the world, on another man’s territory, Mr Netanyahu revealed his character: he is not the Pillsbury doughboy. He is not someone you can permanently frighten or bully. In fact, he is a fighter.
At that moment, in front of rolling cameras, he fought back. And we cheered.

Mr Obama, however, did not cheer; and he did not take ‘no’ for an answer. By July, he restated his determination: Israel must start negotiations  accepting pre-1967 borders.
My bet is, we saw the real Netanyahu in Washington this past May. Yes, he looks like the Pillsbury doughboy. Yes, he will appease a hostile American President.  He will give you what you want—exactly as he is doing now with Mr. Obama’s demands. But beneath that fa├žade is a tough Israeli politician—a fighter who, perhaps for reasons known only to himself, is reluctant to show his fists.

With his most recent announcement---that he will accept pre-1967 borders—Mr Netanyahu also reveals himself to be a man who will gamble with our most precious inheritance—our land. He will gamble everything and, gambling, present to the world his Pillsbury doughboy facade. He offers major concessions to the PA. Painfully, he says he will make difficult concessions for peace. But he also requires something from the PA. His concessions will not be one-sided. He wants something in return; and he gambles with his concessions because he calculates that the PA will break. The PA will, he believes, reject his concessions.  He believes that his gamble is a good one because  he truly believes that the PA can not, will not and will never publicly accept Israel as a Jewish state; I think he believes that the PA will break because of this singular point, and Israel will therefore win this gamble. He also believes in this gamble because through it, Israel can show the world it is willing to make ‘painful’ choices for peace at the same time it proves to the world that it is the Arab who refuses to negotiate.
His gamble is, he can offer our land because the PA will refuse the offer. They will never accept Israel as a Jewish state.  They will spit on peace—in public.

 In addition, we already know that Israeli officials have been visiting UN member states to tell the Israel story, and I think this is the second part of his strategy: while the ‘gamble’ gets played out in public, Israel will look for friends within the UN community –and within the US Congress--to help it do an ‘end-around’, so that if US and/or UN leadership gives Israel the cold shoulder, she can call on her friends to steer a course in her favour.
His gamble is, Israel’s new friends will rally around her because she has finally done exactly what they want—offer land. Therefore, he can now say to them, ’I give to you; now you give to me.’

Of course, if Mr. Netanyahu is wrong, he could lose everything. If he is right, his win could look miraculous because he will literally snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
The key here is what Benjamin Netanyahu believes.   Yes, he believes in himself and he believes in Israel. I am sure that he believes he can do this. But in the weeks ahead, he will face an epic battle against Pharaoh-like pressure from a US President who approaches Israel with a hardened anger and an iron will.

 If Mr Netanyahu aims to withstand that pressure, if he is to have any chance to win his gamble, he would be wise to think about what, deep down, he truly believes.
 Mr Netanyahu, do you own a kippa (yarmulka) and a siddur (prayer book)?  

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