I could hear the prime minister's familiar voice on the telephone. "I want to advance a peace agreement with the Palestinians. I am capable of achieving an agreement. I have the political will inside me," Benjamin Netanyahu told me. He repeated this message during his speeches at the conference of Jewish communities in Washington and at the Saban Forum in Jerusalem: great concessions, generosity of spirit, territorial compromise, let's start negotiations and surprise the world, he said.
I believe him. Political leaders are tested on a public message that they are willing to defend in front of cameras and microphones. Experience shows that there is a correlation between what is said on stage and discrete whispers behind closed doors. Conclusion: Netanyahu's peace talk is meant to prepare the political pundits and Israeli public opinion for a political move, which he presented to U.S. President Barack Obama during their meeting last week.
Netanyahu is motivated by a number of things:
The Strategy: It appears that Netanyahu is preparing for war against Iran and Hezbollah in the coming spring, when the snows melt and the clouds clear. Evidence of this is the additional defense budget and the home front's preparations for a confrontation. And even if in the end Netanyahu doesn't strike, he must be ready. It is better for Israel to fight on fewer fronts and neutralize enemies through diplomacy.
Popularity: According to the Haaretz-Dialog survey published Friday, most Israelis want a settlement with the Palestinians and are willing to talk to Hamas, but prefer that the negotiations be handled by a right-wing government. Netanyahu is popular, and currently no politician is threatening to take the public's support away from him. If he moves forward in a political process, he will be meeting the public's expectations, as he had done in his declaration for "two states for two peoples" and in canceling the drought tax.
Politics: Netanyahu fears a breakdown of the Labor Party, which may take it out of the coalition and leave him with only his "natural partners," who oppose a settlement, and without Defense Minister Ehud Barak, whom the prime minister wants next to him in an expected confrontation with Iran.
Netanyahu needs to give Labor enough slack so it can stay in his coalition, as he did when he responded to Barak and came out against Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman's plan to split the role of the attorney general.
The World: Israel's international isolation is becoming more difficult. Credible negotiations with the Palestinians, especially if they are accompanied by the "generosity" that Netanyahu promises, will remove the Goldstone report from over Israel's head and with it the threat of being boycotted and condemned. They will also contribute to the rehabilitation of relations with Europe, Turkey and Jordan.
It is true that Netanyahu can trick them all and buy time with empty negotiations until he makes up his mind whether to attack Iran, or until Obama is deep in the race for a second term and leaves him be.
Netanyahu knows that he is not believed and says: I don't want a peace process for the sake of the process, but to bring an end to the problem.
He can trick the journalists who, in the worst-case scenario, will write things against him. But it is hard to believe that he will try to cheat the president of the United States and make false promises.
The deal that Obama is offering is clear: a diplomatic struggle against Iran and defense backing for Israel - in some areas even more than what was on the table during the Bush administration - in return for a pullout from the territories and a Palestinian state.
Netanyahu understood this and still insisted on meeting the president, even at the cost of public humiliation, to tell him that he wants to push forward on a settlement with the Palestinians. He spoke with him about "concrete steps" and made his promises public. Why would he do this if his intentions were not true?
The prime minister is lonely. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas avoids him. His senior ministers are not thrilled by the prospect: Barak leans toward Syria and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman looks down on negotiations with the Palestinians.
It is not clear if Netanyahu has a negotiator who can cobble together a deal, as Moshe Dayan was for Menachem Begin and Shimon Peres for Yitzhak Rabin. Every political leader needs a court diplomat, a Henry Kissinger of sorts. Barak and Ehud Olmert carried out the negotiations on their own and crashed.
But these problems can be resolved. The minute Netanyahu is convincing that he is serious and has a serious peace plan and not mere slogans, the political world will be shaken up, and those supporting a settlement with the Palestinians will back him. This is his challenge. He convinced me; let's see him convince Abbas.
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