Are these changes of heart or tactics?

By Evelyn Gordon, December 3, 2009

By freezing settlement construction and offering to trade hundreds of terrorists for Gilad Shalit, PM Netanyahu seems to be abandoning everything he previously believed in. But he may simply be applying a lesson learned from his first term as premier: to confront difficult challenges, you must keep the Israeli centre solidly behind you.

Mr Netanyahu faces two crucial challenges. First, the lack of effective international pressure on Iran’s nuclear programme may force him to take military action.

Second, the chances of progress toward peace are almost nil, meaning Israel will face growing international opprobrium and pressure for potentially dangerous concessions.

To keep the Israeli majority behind him, he must prove that he made a good-faith effort to advance peace talks, and encouraged international action on Iran by making concessions to the Palestinians.

This same need contributed to Mr Sharon’s decision, when similarly faced with a stalled peace process, to unilaterally withdraw from Gaza.

Mr Netanyahu, however, has been wiser. The settlement freeze, unlike the Gaza pullout, poses no security threat to Israel. Yet it is something no previous Israeli premier ever offered. It even covers the settlement blocs most Israelis want to keep under any agreement. So they recognise it as a substantial gesture.

Even if it proves insufficient for the Palestinians, Europeans and Americans, mainstream Israelis are unlikely to blame Mr Netanyahu, who has demonstrated great flexibility. Rather, they will blame the international community for making unjustified demands.

The Shalit deal does pose a security threat. But it is very popular, and also demonstrates Mr Netanyahu’s willingness to make concessions, even risky ones. That will make it easier for him to convince the majority later that he cannot accede to international demands for even more dangerous concessions, or do nothing while Iran develops the bomb. Israelis will understand that he is not just being intransigent; these are really red lines.

Moreover, both the settlement freeze and the Shalit deal help him keep Labour in the government. The freeze lets Labour show its voters a serious effort to advance the peace process, while Shalit has become a signature issue for several Labour ministers. And having a left-of-centre party in the government obviously makes it easier to retain centre-left voters’ support.

So perhaps Mr Netanyahu’s views have really changed. But his recent about-faces could as easily be mere tactics. Only time will tell.

Evelyn Gordon is a journalist living in Israel

Last updated: 2:26pm, November 8 2010