Text size

At the best of times, being prime minister of Israel has never been an easy job. Now it is more difficult than ever, and Benjamin Netanyahu is faced with the most crucial moment of his political life. The U.S. administration is not leaving any doubt that it is sick and tired of Netanyahu. He has come to the same point as he did in his first term as prime minister a decade ago, when Bill Clinton's administration no longer trusted him on anything. Connecting the current crisis exclusively to Eli Yishai's East Jerusalem gaffe is short-sighted: It doesn't take minds as experienced and acute as those of Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden and George Mitchell to see this gaffe as a symptom of Netanyahu's endless maneuvering, rather than an unfortunate and momentary lack of communication with his interior minister.

Now the fate of the Middle East peace process hinges on Netanyahu's decision, which in turn depends on his character, which has been analyzed time and again. In his previous stint as prime minister, Netanyahu operated through evoking fear and hatred rather than positive emotions. He came across a small-time tactician, not a statesman with an overarching vision.

So far, in his first year at the country's helm, he has continued the same pattern: he went for the predictable right-wing coalition. He has succeeded in stalling any movement in the peace process by bogging down U.S. mediation efforts in endless bickering about how much and for how long he would stop settlement construction. His only achievement so far had been to hold his coalition together without running into a head-on clash with the U.S. administration ? until now, when the crisis has finally erupted.

Netanyahu is coming toward the end of his midlife. Presumably he knows that his place in history will be carved in stone by the present term. He may not get another chance to be prime minister, even in Israel's unfortunately very static political landscape. Hence he faces the one big question: will he continue his pattern of basically stalling, or will he muster the courage for a bold move?

Some people, under the shadow of mortality, undergo transformation. This is what happened to Begin, Rabin and Sharon, who transformed late in life, because they realized that they would not live forever, and that what they would not do now, would never be done. They heeded the call of history.

One scenario is that Netanyahu will undergo a similar midlife transition; that he will stop thinking about elections in ten years. With his current coalition he is completely blocked. Between Avigdor Lieberman's bid to become the most hated foreign minister on earth and Eli Yishai's efforts to prove that he will do anything to build for the ultra-Orthodox in Jerusalem, Netanyahu has no room to maneuver. Hence, his only way out is to drop both, and to make a serious, honest, honorable offer to Kadima for a centrist coalition together with Labor. The political arithmetic is clear.

This bold move requires Netanyahu to work against his instinct to preserve his long-term alliance with right wing parties. He will have to stop being afraid of ruining his relationship with Shas, because he must begin to understand that he may not get another chance to form a government. He will have to appreciate that is little value in preserving the possibility for future cooperation with Lieberman, because he is now up against history; not potential coalition parties in ten years.

If he has arrived at this point, he may go for the bold move. He may burn the bridges behind him, knowing that there is nothing to go back to. He may try to overcome the personal animosity that has evolved between him and Kadima leader Tzipi Livni, and to go for a coalition that will allow him to make difficult choices: to dismantle settlements, and to truly move towards rescuing the two-state solution that his right-wing coalition partners are trying to make impossible by creating ever more facts on the ground. Yes, he may lose some of his right-wing Likud "rebels." Yes, he may even have to call for left-wing Meretz to join the coalition if enough of his party members defect. And he may try to make the historical move that can save Israel as a democracy with a Jewish majority.

Or he may opt to continue doing what he has done until now: trying to gain some more time; to galvanize the Christian hard core in the U.S. to stop the Obama administration from pressuring Israel; to hope that AIPAC will mobilize Congress against the administration and try to keep his current coalition together for the sole purpose of staying in power. If so, he will go down in history as a man who simply didn't have it in him to jump over his own shadow.

Netanyahu is at one of the most frightening - and exhilarating - moments in a human life: he faces his freedom and the responsibility that comes with it. There is no use hiding behind tactical moves that are, so to speak, necessitated by political realities. History will judge him for the choice he makes, because Israel's existence as a democracy with a Jewish majority may hinge on it.

In the past, as minister of finance, he has shown courage and the ability to make difficult choice, and we can only hope that this, more decisive aspect of his character will take over. Now, as prime minister, nobody can take the responsibility from his shoulders. This is Netanyahu's moment of truth.