For close to a decade now, one of the principal questions accompanying the Israeli reality is the question of Benjamin Netanyahu - the question of Bibi's identity. Who is this articulate man who sprang forth out of American TV screens into local politics? Is he a godless opportunist or a statesman of great stature? Is he a deceptive salesman or a rational leader with a sober outlook on reality?
Next Sunday, when the Likud Central Committee convenes to discuss the draft proposal that would rule out the establishment of a Palestinian state west of the Jordan River, we will know the answer. Because if Netanyahu is a statesman of great stature, he should understand the significance of adopting such a resolution: It would mean the Likud's return to the lost notion of a Greater Israel; it would mean the right's return to the dead-end policy of perpetuating the occupation; it would mean negation of the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination.
Moreover, if Netanyahu is indeed a rational leader with a sober take on reality, he ought to understand the effect of adopting such a radical and dogmatic decision on the part of the ruling party in Israel. Israel would lose the modicum of international support it still enjoys, and would even endanger the international legitimacy of its existence. The outcome would be a smashing of the narrow national consensus that has come into being in the past year, and the loss of any opportunity to stabilize the internal unity in Israel. The outcome would be a harsh political blow to Israel and a decisive political victory for Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat.
However, if Netanyahu is the man his haters have always said he is - a godless opportunist - he will be guided next Sunday by the substantial opportunities inherent in the draft resolution to be submitted to the Likud Central Committee: the chance of defeating and even humiliating his personal rival, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon; the chance to push the Labor Party into a corner and dismantle the national unity government; the chance to promote a narrow personal interests over a broad and vital national one.
More seriously, if Netanyahu is indeed a deceptive salesman, he will know how to wrap the wanton act of support for a reactionary decision in lofty words, in which he himself does not believe. He will know how to dress up a cynical act of political trickery as a heroic effort to rescue the nation from the left. And he will know how to paint the brutal hunger for power of some of his political partners with seemingly decorous statements of a quasi-republican conservatism.
But this time, Netanyahu will not be able to claim that the decision was forced on him. This time, there will not be any excuses - not a hostile media, not patronizing elites, and not the jealousy of princes. This time, the decision is all his own.
If Netanyahu walks out onto the stage of the Mann Auditorium on Sunday evening and incites his supporters to back a foolish move that may be good for him personally, but would do inestimable damage to his country, he alone will bear the responsibility. It is he who will be defining himself as being unsuited to serve again as prime minister. Conversely, if he curbs his instincts, overcomes his weaknesses and calls on his supporters to restrain themselves, he will perhaps prove that he has learned something and that he may, after all, possess some of the statesmanship that he attributes to himself.
Benjamin Netanyahu gained legitimacy as a serious candidate for prime minister in early 1996, when he led his party into adopting the Oslo accords. Although he rejected the accords, Netanyahu the statesman understood at the time that the political reality obliged Israel to honor them.
Now, however, Netanyahu the politician is faced with the temptation of jump-starting his renewed journey toward the reins of power by means of a nationalistic-moonstruck pronouncement.
Perhaps if he does behave irresponsibly this coming Sunday, he will shorten his path to the Prime Minister's Office. But if he does so, he will also ensure that his days in that office will be short - short and anything but sweet.
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