Like the mythological figures of Persephone, goddess of the underworld, and Dionysus, god of wine, known for their qualities of regeneration, Benjamin Netanyahu is reinventing himself anew. At the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Monday, he accused Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of paving the way for Hamas' ascent in the Palestinian Authority. A month ago, in his address at the Herzliya Conference, he described himself as being willing to make great gestures toward the Palestinians, if only they would remove Hamas from their leadership. Either Netanyahu is playing tricks or he is behaving like the coachman who remembered to close the barn doors after the horses had already run away.
Netanyahu is now busy preparing the ground for a renewed run for the public's support. He is doing this using his old methods: wrapping himself in a false image, formulating simplistic messages, putting forth exaggerated proposals and cultivating the impression of a determined, confident leader. This tactic demands that we juxtapose the new Netanyahu with the old, to remind ourselves of who we're dealing with.
In his confrontation with Olmert on Monday, Netanyahu claims that by agreeing to let the Palestinian Authority hold elections, the prime minister brought about the Hamas victory. Olmert, Netanyahu continued, is guilty of failing to nip Hamas at the bud, and failing to overthrow of the Ismail Haniyeh government after its election. This is the same approach Netanyahu has promoted in the past year, and which he expressed at the most recent Herzliya Conference. There he stated that Israel's central aim should be overthrowing the Hamas government. Until that happens there should be no negotiations with the Palestinians nor should any concessions be made to them. Only after a moderate government replaces Haniyeh's will it be possible to develop "peaceful and neighborly relations" with the Palestinians.
Fantastic. Even those who ignore for a moment the opportunities Netanyahu himself missed to develop "peaceful and neighborly relations" with the Palestinians during his premiership between 1996 and 1999 should not overlook his less-than-neighborly attitude toward the Palestinians, and specifically PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, after he took over from Yasser Arafat. Here is a representative sample: On June 2, 2005, as finance minister in the government of Ariel Sharon, Netanyahu said, with reference to the Palestinian Authority Chairman, that Israel foresees "his great weakness in dealing with terrorism ... I hope and believe that Sharon, during their meeting, will tell Abu Mazen [Abbas] 'enough words, action is needed.'"
When he announced his candidacy for the leadership of Likud (against Sharon), on August 30, 2005, Netanyahu expressed his reservations about the road map, described Abbas as an abettor of terrorism who aspires to destroy Israel, and announced that he will demand a referendum for every territorial concession.
At the meeting of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on November 15, 2005, Netanyahu attacked the agreement with the Palestinians being discussed at the time, regarding the possibility of allowing a direct link between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. He also criticized the willingness expressed by the Sharon government to set up a port in the Gaza Strip.
About a year ago, on February 22, 2006, a bitter exchange took place at the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee between Netanyahu and Olmert (then vice premier), whose content and tone rang similar to Monday's altercation between the two. Netanyahu also accused Olmert of the failure that led to Hamas' entrenchment at the top, and Olmert reminded him that he, Netanyahu, was a senior minister in the Sharon government when it decided not to intervene in the most recent elections in the Palestinian Authority and even to allow residents of East Jerusalem to vote.
Netanyahu, and the entire Likud, has no real recipe for ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And as the confrontation becomes more complicated, it becomes more violent too, and the proposals offered by the right on resolving the crisis become even more simplistic. The difficulties of the current political and security realities make Netanyahu nostalgic for the circumstances of yesterday. Some time in the future he'll feel nostalgic for today.
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