"We will stand steadfast against those who will try to dictate terms to us, who will leave us without security and without peace," vowed Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday at a Likud conference, and it was nearly possible to sense - more precisely to shudder at - the air of "the people want the Likud to stay in power" that flowed in the hall.
There stands a brave Jewish leader, who proves that he too can adjust to the new atmosphere in the Middle East. Like Gadhafi, Assad, Ali Abdullah Saleh and others who blame "foreign elements" with an attempt to impose reforms on their regimes, here too Israel has "foreign elements" who are trying to impose on it policies that it does not want. "We have stood steadfast for two years," Netanyahu reminded his followers of his great achievement, which has pushed Israel into the corner of the world's undesirables.
Netanyahu is neither Mubarak nor Ben Ali. He is a lot more like Gadhafi and Assad. Like them he aspires to a "national steadfastness" against international pressures and the Palestinian threat to establish a state. Of the pressures from the White House, Netanyahu has nothing to worry about. These have not existed for some time. Like in Egypt and Tunisia prior to the revolution, the opposition in Israel is a state-sponsored opposition, an inalienable part of the game of understandings between the government and its alleged rivals.
But even the "foreign elements," whether they are the U.S. or the Palestinians, Netanyahu will try to maneuver using old partners in the Middle East. After all, what do the Americans want? To bring down the last island of democracy in the Middle East, which is sinking in the sea of popular revolutions that are still leading nowhere? Do they want a state of Hamas also in the West Bank and Jerusalem, after they already set up a Shi'ite state in Iraq and a non-state in Afghanistan? Would it not be best for the U.S. to first know how the end game will turn out in Libya, Yemen or Syria, before it applies pressure against the Jewish state and tries to dictate terms to it?
Oh, what wonderful excuses the revolutions in the Arab states are providing to the Israeli leader, who is already feeling the waves of the political tsunami. With his talent, he will maneuver the windsurfer onto a dangerous beach. He will talk the Americans to death and add the Palestinians to the axis of evil.
And then comes a surprise. His trial balloon last week over the skies of Israel carried a message that read: "We are pulling back a little, we are gaining a lot." Netanyahu too apparently understands, like his colleagues in the Middle East, that it is necessary to give something in order to win over the majority. Now he is proposing "a little withdrawal," without dismantling any settlements, without removing outposts, without transferring populations, without authorities of state, in order to block the threat of a Palestinian state declaration.
Netanyahu is apparently proposing to implement another particle of the Wye Agreement, which he signed in 1998 and was never implemented. A nice method: To the Palestinians and the Americans he will present it as a unprecedented concession, and to the Israelis he will say it is only the implementation of an agreement that has already been signed and is not a precedent - no new concession.
He is counting on an automatic Palestinian reaction which demands all or nothing. After all, they are tired of crumbs of proposals, pointless negotiations, of Israel's political swindling. They are pushing for a state, and in this rush, Netanyahu is hoping they may fall into a new trap, reject the proposal for a partial withdrawal and play into Israel's hands. But what if they decide to accept the partial withdrawal but continue, at the same time, with efforts to establish their state?
It is true that the minor withdrawal Netanyahu is offering does not resolve a thing. It does not meet the Palestinian hunger for a state, and will not succeed in preventing the campaign to establish it. But it contains a very important element for which it is important to adopt it: It will destroy the claim that "We will stand steadfast against those who will try to dictate terms to us," and will bring back to Israel the "susceptible to pressure" Netanyahu of the Wye Agreement. It will show that like Mubarak or Assad, Netanyahu too is vulnerable to pressure, and he too finally understands that the formula of "peace for peace" is dead.
But for this it is necessary to have Palestinian partners who will not reject offhand the Israeli withdrawal only because they are in a rush for a Palestinian state. Both are possible; it is not a case of one or the other.
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