Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has reached the point where he needs to make a decision, something he has avoided doing for two years: choosing between the ideology he was raised on and which is part of his internal belief system, and the duties of the leader of a small country entirely dependent on international support.
Like all of his predecessors, Netanyahu too has surrendered to external pressure and embarked on a political initiative that will break through the stifling isolation in which Israel finds itself.
Two parallel developments brought him to this breaking point. U.S. President Barack Obama’s veto against the condemnation of West Bank settlements at the UN Security Council brought home to Netanyahu that Israel has no more friends in the international community. It was only the flick of Obama’s finger that prevented a huge diplomatic defeat for the prime minister, and the White House went out of its way to make it clear that it does in fact support the condemnation and was voting against it only for domestic political considerations. Now the time has come to cash in, and Obama will demand a price for his veto.
Domestically, Netanyahu has taken a dive in public opinion polls and is unable to reach the popularity he enjoyed at the start of his tenure. His big rivals, Kadima head Tzipi Livni and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, are only becoming stronger and have signaled their cooperation in a future coalition that would rise on the ruins of Likud.
Criticism of the prime minister stems from a sense of standstill, along with his lack of leadership in the recent chief of staff appointment and inability to manage his own office. A daring act, one of leadership, is now required for Netanyahu to overturn the way things are moving.
Former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon found himself in the same position in the fall of 2003. The public was tired of his leadership, the Americans were fed up with the political impasse and his popularity was falling. The international community began signaling it would impose a solution, in line with the Geneva Initiative, and the elders of the defense establishment warned that Sharon was leading to disaster. Sharon broke, and announced that he would evacuate the Gush Katif settlement bloc in Gaza.
From that moment on, his luck turned, his popularity reached new heights and the world embraced him.
Following in Sharon’s footsteps
Signs have become plentiful in recent days that Netanyahu is following in Sharon’s footsteps and breaking away from the extreme right to the center. It began with his address to the Knesset last week, in which he hinted at an interim settlement with the Palestinians that will keep the Jordan Valley in Israeli control, and also dropped the demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a homeland of the Jewish people. He continued with the razing of the Havat Gilad outpost, a clear sign to the extreme right.
On Monday, Netanyahu told Likud − like Sharon before him − that he will not continue along the same line in view of the tremendous amount of international pressure.
Now he is saying in closed meetings that “a binational state would be disastrous for Israel” and suddenly Netanyahu sounds like former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who in an interview with Haaretz at the Annapolis Conference declared: Two states or Israel is finished. And this is the same Netanyahu who has always denied the demographic threat, regarding it as a scarecrow in the service of the left.
It is clear that the prime minister is looking to the right, and using the tried and tested trick of picking a fight with the settlers. They will block roads, making drivers angry and causing them to hate the extreme right-wing. Netanyahu will appear as someone who cares about the interests of the state and will not sell out those interests for the sake of excitable hilltop youth.
Netanyahu’s problem is that the leaders of the world do not believe him. Contrary to Olmert and Sharon, who both had close ties with President George Bush, Netanyahu has a poor relationship with Obama. He will now focus his efforts on convincing the American president to give him a chance. He will try to convince Obama to let him dictate his own punishment by promising to make further pullbacks in the West Bank and pave the way for a Palestinian state. Only thus will it be possible to foil the unilateral declaration of independence the Palestinians are planning.
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