Will Bibi make his mark on history?

By Benjamin Pogrund, June 6, 2014
One direction? Benzion Netanyahu, left, and his son, Benjamin

One direction? Benzion Netanyahu, left, and his son, Benjamin

Four years ago a former Israeli official floated the idea of an overnight change in Prime Binyamin Netanyahu: he would wake up one morning and decide that his ambition was no longer only to win the next election but he would instead want to leave his mark on history; he would do so by immediately pointing the way to a new road of peace with Palestinians, and his people would follow him.

The official was Dr Alon Liel, former director-general of Israel's foreign ministry and former ambassador to South Africa. He said it during a public meeting in Cape Town.

Could he be correct? Is it possible that lurking inside the Bibi Netanyahu whom the world knows as a steadfast rightwing leader, is another Netanyahu, ready to break with his past and apply the power of his leadership to radical action to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

Is there a hidden Netanyahu willing to provide bold and visionary leadership, defying the wrath of the extremists on both sides who do not want peace except on each of their strict terms? Is there a Netanyahu with the potential to earn the gratitude of most Israelis, and Palestinians, by ending the strife between them and the fear and the prejudice that drive it?

There is, of course, precedent in the Ariel Sharon story. The "father of the settlements" changed dramatically in his later years: he defied the rightwing and ordered settler withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and was intending the same for tens of thousands of settlers on the West Bank until a stroke felled him. Netanyahu left the cabinet in protest at the Gaza evacuation. He took over the Likud leadership after Sharon broke away to form a new party.

The contradiction betweeen what Netanyahu says and what Netanyahu does has been strikingly evident

For years, stories, gossip and speculation swirling around Netanyahu gave credence to the notion that he could go along the same road. Foremost in this was his relationship with his father, Dr Benzion Netanyahu, a noted historian known for his hawkish views. There was open talk that the son was in thrall to his father and would not do anything politically which could offend him, and indeed that the father was critical of the son for not being sufficiently rightwing. It meant that Bibi was incapable of any daring adventures which would take him away from the right. Wait until the father dies, then the son's life will open up, was the prediction.

Dr Netanyahu died in April 2012 at the age of 102. But anyone who waited for Bibi to change political direction has been disappointed.

The other major source of gossip is Bibi's wife, Sara. She exerts considerable influence on her husband's political actions. She is strongly rightwing and will not let him stray.

Without knowing anything factual about the inner workings of the Netanyahu marriage, what must be noted is that Bibi is a man of strength: he must be to be prime minister for the third time; to be head of the Likud Party, fighting off a succession of challenges to his authority; and to be holding together a coalition government which is not only divided and fractious but some of whose members do not hesitate to declare in public that they oppose his policies.

His past also reflects strength. He was a brave fighter in an elite IDF unit. During the 1990s he was mired in scandals involving his marriage and allegations of corruption, yet he came through. He was prime minister for three years in the 1990s, lost the next elections clearly because of acute voter dislike, yet he survived and got to the top again less than a decade later.

He does not enjoy the same fervent popularity as before and the chants of "Bibi, King of Israel" are not as noisy as they once were. But he remains the leader. And he is as silver-tongued as ever, a master before the TV cameras.

It seems unlikely that this is a man tied to his wife's apron strings and obeying her political commands.

So is there actually any possibility of a new Netanyahu? Over the past few years there has indeed been evidence of something different. The most important event was on June 14 2009 in his celebrated speech at Bar-Ilan University. For the first time he acknowledged the two-state solution and pledged himself to it.

He hedged it with qualifications - the Palestinian state must be demilitarised, Jerusalem must remain Israeli and united, no return of refugees - but the change was still dramatic and far-reaching. It scared those to the right of him, who correctly saw that a new Netanyahu and Likud policy were emerging.

Netanyahu added another qualification which has grown in significance - and which raises a huge question mark about his true intentions. In the same speech he said that Palestinians must accept Israel as a Jewish state.

It seemed at the time to be a ploy to pre-empt discussion and negotiation on the issue of the Palestinian demand for the return of their refugees. For why else was it necessary? After all, Israel is a Jewish state: it declared itself so in the Declaration of Independence in 1948 and the majority of its people view it as a Jewish state, even though there is no unanimity about what that means in practice. Palestinians have for long accepted the fact of Israel's existence – that goes back to 1988 and also the Oslo Accords in 1993. Does it matter whether they like or don't like the nature of Israeli society?

Despite this, after its initial small start, the Jewish state demand has grown and grown. It has become writ in stone. It is now a basic element of government policy – and has become a major stumbling block in discussions with Palestinians to achieve peace. They recognise it for the trap it is and also fear that accepting it would undermine the rights of Israel's Arab minority. So they refuse to buy it and are backed by the Arab League. Which, to the cynical, is the real reason why Bibi and Co propound it so avidly.

On the other hand, Netanyahu continues to speak peace. "I am ready to proceed, I am ready to reach the end of the conflict, but it must be the end of the conflict," is his constant refrain in newspaper and TV interviews.

Some Likud members take him at his word and view him with suspicion, worrying that he might actually agree to a Palestinian state with more than words. Despite this, and even though key members have moved against him to reduce his leadership powers inside the party, he has gone on speaking about his desire for peace and wanting a two-state solution. Every time he does this he renews the hope that perhaps a new Netanyahu is about to burst into the open and that he will offer inspired leadership which the people of Israel will happily follow into a glorious tomorrow.

But the truth must be faced: we have, instead, Netanyahu the clever, adroit politician loudly demanding peace while doing everything to ensure it does not happen. He goes back and forth to dampen the dissent among his own: he must push back Danny Danon, deputy minister of defence, in a tussle for control of the Likud party machine; he must look the other way as his defence minister, Moshe Yaalon, strains relations with Washington with insulting sneers about Secretary of State John Kerry; he must bite his tongue as a key coalition partner, Naftali Bennett, scornfully keeps saying that he doesn't mind that the government speaks to Palestinians because he knows it will go nowhere. Plus all the other members of his cabinet and party who undermine him.

The question becomes inevitable: is Netanyahu able to stay in office, and aim for reelection next year, because he is strong? Or is he weak and aiming for re-election simply by not dealing with all those who oppose him?

The contradiction between what Netanyahu says and what Netanyahu does has been strikingly evident during the nine months of the peace initiative by Secretary Kerry. He ducked and dived, leaving the US finally, according to reports, putting the blame on Israel for the failure.

Even now Netanyahu has declared he will go ahead to enshrine the "Jewish state" concept as a Basic Law. Why the country needs this at this time is a mystery. Is it a continuing ploy to forestall Palestinian refugee demands? Is it simply a means of rubbing Palestinian – and Arab world – noses in Jewish assertiveness? Or is it a clever-clever way to create controversy – to throw up smoke – to distract attention from the fact that the Palestinian conflict goes on unresolved and to provide cover for the nonstop growth of settlements on the West Bank and the day by day entrenchment of occupation.

The conclusion: Netanyahu securing his place in the history books as the man who ended the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not yet in sight. No epiphany.

This week, Alon Liel updated his view: "With a lot of effective outside pressure my prediction might still come true. No signs yet, but also no real pressure yet."

South African-born journalist Benjamin Pogrund's latest book, Drawing Fire: Investigating the accusations of apartheid in Israel is being published by Rowman & Littlefield in July.

Last updated: 12:27pm, June 6 2014