Bibi the misunderstood PM

By Chas Newkey-Burden, November 28, 2011
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In a sense, it is only fitting that the Prime Minister of the world's most misunderstood country should himself be a much misunderstood man. Benjamin Netanyahu is routinely described as the hardest of hardliners, a man utterly opposed to conciliation, and a warmonger. The trouble is, none of these anti-Netanyahu cliches are supported by the facts.

It is not just Israel's opponents who paint him thus. Many Israelis and supporters of Israel would have us believe that he is a one-man obstacle to Middle East peace. If only he would retire from the political scene, these people seem to believe, the entire region could be instantly transformed into a harmonious idyll, envied even by Switzerland for the eternal serenity of its fluffy, universally-affectionate tribes.

Let's tackle that "warmonger" allegation first. Netanyahu, who is in his second term, is one of very few leaders in Israel's history not to have presided over a war. Not even Golda Meir, considered comparatively doveish by many around the world, could make the same claim. This, despite Netanyahu ruling during a time of intensifying threats and a series of bloodthirsty attacks from several borders. Likewise, if he is a hardliner, disinterested in peace or negotiation, then he has a mighty strange way of showing it.

During his first term, he personally negotiated with Yasir Arafat. To even meet Arafat - perhaps Israel's most bloodthirsty enemy ever - is not the act of a man disinterested in achieving peace.

If he is a hardliner has a mighty strange way of showing it

But meet Arafat he did, first at the Erez checkpoint in Gaza and later in Washington DC where, against his personal instincts, he shook his hand on the White House lawn, just as Yitzhak Rabin had done. These were not empty gestures. In January 1997, Bibi handed most of Hebron to the Palestinians, and the following year he signed the Wye River peace memorandum.

When he became Prime Minister again in 2009, he continued where he had left off, making concessions, some of them nothing short of historic. He made it clear from the start that he was ready to negotiate with any Arab leader and that he endorsed a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Within months, he was back at the White House, negotiating with a Palestinian leader - this time Mahmoud Abbas.

Netanyahu has removed many West Bank checkpoints, a move that has directly contributed to the dramatic upturn in the Palestinian economy. He also became the first Prime Minister in Israel's history to order a freeze in settlement construction.

These facts speak for themselves, yet there is no more powerful rebuttal of claims that Netanyahu is disinterested in negotiation than the welcome sight of Gilad Shalit's return to Israeli soil. The PM was teased when he was pictured smiling in the background as Gilad was reunited with his father Noam. However, it was Netanyahu's negotiations - with Hamas of all people - that took Gilad home.

He is not without faults. For instance, his acceleration of settlement construction in response to the Palestinians securing membership at UNESCO was childish and divisive. It damaged Israel's standing unnecessarily, especially among those it can least afford to lose: the unaligned voices of quiet reason, whose goodwill is invaluable when the going gets tough.

The going could get tougher than ever if Netanyahu orders military action against Iran's nuclear programme. The spectre of Iran's reprisal including swift, large-scale terror attacks in Western cities is real.

Sadly, we know that in such a scenario many would choose to blame Israel, not the terrorists. At that stage, those Israel supporters who have stood by or even co-conspired while an increasingly unfair image was constructed of Israel's current Prime Minister, might wish they had acted otherwise.

The image of a country's leader has a huge bearing on how the country itself is perceived. Look at America's international standing during George W Bush's presidency.

The facts support a fairer perception of Netanyahu. Misunderstood and rarely given credit for the painful concessions he has made, he really is Israel personified. His is a uniquely difficult job. All I am saying is, give Bibi a chance.

Chas Newkey-Burden is an author and radio commentator. He blogs at www.oyvagoy.com

Last updated: 11:12am, November 28 2011