This past Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu paid his annual visit to Sde Boker to participate in the official memorial ceremony for David Ben-Gurion. Prime ministers take advantage of this occasion to pick and choose from the philosophy of the country's founding father, and imagine themselves as his successors and disciples. Here, seven years ago, Ehud Olmert, then the deputy prime minister, announced the plan for the withdrawal from Gaza; Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was not at the ceremony.
Netanyahu described Ben-Gurion as a unique leader who declared the founding of the state though he knew that war awaited, and despite pressure from friends and rivals. "He knew that everything rested on his shoulders, that he stood alone, by himself in the face of the historic moment," the prime minister waxed poetic.
The prime minister devoted the main part of his speech to the tension between the leader's principles and "the world's" demands. Ben-Gurion knew nations cannot exist without alliances, but "in the matter of Jerusalem, Ben-Gurion stood up against the world with impressive courage," he said.
Now Netanyahu is sitting in Ben-Gurion's chair, and he feels himself to be in a similar situation. "The world," led by U.S. President Barack Obama, is demanding he deny his principles, stop the settlements and hand the West Bank over to a Palestinian state. His political partners Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Deputy Prime Minister Silvan Shalom, Vice Prime Minister Moshe Ya'alon and Minister without Portfolio Benny Begin are insisting he refuse the American demands.
And Netanyahu is torn. The deeper he delves into the philosophy of the country's founder, the harder it is for him to face the historic moment when he must decide which way to go: to say "yes" to Obama and risk losing his coalition and facing an acute rift inside Israel, or to refuse the Americans, close ranks with Lieberman, Ya'alon and Begin and embark on a diplomatic battle against the Obama administration. As is his wont, Netanyahu is trying to have it both ways, please both sides and pass the buck.
"There is a huge and powerful temptation to wait for a more propitious time, to form a firmer majority, to find partners in responsibility. But Ben-Gurion knew how to identify the elusive historic moment of now or never," said Netanyahu at Sde Boker. Will Netanyahu know too?
After his seven-hour meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in New York eight days ago, the sides issued a joint statement about the talks "focused on creating the conditions for the resumption of direct negotiations aimed at producing a two-state solution." Ostensibly, Netanyahu and Clinton are walking hand-in-hand toward a better future and a new Middle East. Inside the room, however, Netanyahu came up against a dictate from the American administration: Freeze the settlements for 90 days and use that time to determine the future border between Israel and Palestine.
Yitzhak Rabin once related that James Baker, the elder President George Bush's strong-arm secretary of state, used to attend meetings with Israel's leaders with an open notebook in his lap. It apparently contained his talking points. At some stage, Baker would shut the notebook, look his interlocutor straight in the eye, "and then you knew he was speaking as the U.S. secretary of state." At that moment the Israeli leader would understand there was no point in debating and thenceforth he had to obey Baker - or find himself in conflict with America the great.
Clinton "shut the notebook" on Netanyahu in order to transmit a message: The Republican victory in the Congressional elections has not taken Obama's peace efforts off the agenda. Netanyahu was given an offer that can't be refused: Freeze the settlements and negotiate on the borders now, in return for fighter planes and diplomatic guarantees in the future.
The offer has to be read in its negative: The guarantees Netanyahu is asking of the Americans reveal his anxieties. Like a husband who asks "You do love me, don't you?" or a landlord who has the tenants sign a thousand and one guarantees, Netanyahu isn't certain of Obama's support. He wants authorization to build in East Jerusalem, he wants permission to resume construction in the settlements at the end of the moratorium (in closed conversations he promises not to be excessive ), he wants America to veto any initiative in the UN Security Council to recognize a Palestinian state, and under pressure from his partners in the government he is demanding that the negotiations focus not only on borders but rather cover all the core issues.
And here is the commentary: Netanyahu understands that at the end of the new moratorium, there will be a demand for another moratorium, as happened last time. He fears Obama will let the Palestinians bring up their cause at the UN and will not veto it. And he is scared of discussing borders, which will mean opening a map and committing to a concrete position and not just vague slogans.
If the agenda is expanded, Netanyahu will be able to bring narrative demands like "recognition of Israel as the state of the Jewish people" and at any moment cause the negotiations to blow up. However, if they talk only in numbers and percentages, dunams and boundaries, the coalition will fall apart and Netanyahu will be depicted as someone who made concessions, gave the Land of Israel to the enemy and got nothing in return. Then he will have to look for his voters in Lieberman's column.
Netanyahu is demanding a written commitment from Obama, in an expression of the mistrust between them and perhaps also in order to show achievements at home - like the letter Prime Minister Ariel Sharon got from U.S. President George Bush the younger in return for evacuating Gush Katif. But this will be a consolation prize. If the prime minister of Israel does not trust the president of the United States to impose a veto on an essential issue like a forced solution and recognition of Palestine's independence within the 1967 borders, and wants a written note in advance, then the alliance between the two countries is in deep trouble.
And maybe not. Until now Netanyahu has refused to initiate moves and shown he prefers to act only under American pressure. Perhaps this makes it easier for him to distance himself from his past positions, and maybe it's convenient for him that Obama tells him what to do.
Netanyahu knows that in direct negotiations vis-a-vis Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, there will never be any agreement on the borders. Perhaps he is expecting an American map that will determine where Palestine will arise and free him from the dilemma of how far to withdraw. After all, that's what his guide and teacher David Ben-Gurion did when American presidents ordered him to leave Sinai in 1949 and 1956.
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