netanyahu - Olivier Fitoussi - February 2 2011
Prime Minister Netanyahu speaking in the Knesset, February 2, 2011. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had hoped that Hosni Mubarak would remain in power forever, for the sake of preserving "stability." Now the Egyptian ruler is fighting for his political life in Cairo's Tahrir Square, his cohorts in the region are trembling with fear that the revolution will sweep away their regimes as well, and Netanyahu is being forced to navigate Israel through the storm.

The crisis across the border caught Netanyahu in midterm, just as his government lost its way. Instead of leading, he seems to be biding his time in the Prime Minister's Office until the next election. In the absence of progress, he is busy dealing with embarrassing hitches, like the appointment of the next chief of staff.

His last-minute decision to be rid of Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant did not strengthen his image. He was late in intervening in the defense establishment crisis, and now he's trying to pass the buck to his widely hated defense minister, Ehud Barak. Unexpected changes inherently generate anxiety, and the public looks to its leaders for reassurance and direction. The era of revolutions in the Middle East could be Netanyahu's chance to foment change and to apply what he has ostensibly learned from the biographies of Winston Churchill and Theodor Herzl.

Netanyahu's confidants insist that he wants to achieve a settlement with the Palestinians and that he is disappointed at Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' refusal to negotiate with him. They talk about policy plans Netanyahu forged with Barak and about secret missions by attorney Yitzhak Molcho in search of a diplomatic breakthrough.

Netanyahu and his court remained silent in the wake of the Al Jazeera revelations about the details of the Kadima government's negotiations with the Palestinians, and following the publication of excerpts from Ehud Olmert's memoirs, which revealed the map the former premier had presented Abbas. Maybe Netanyahu wants to entrench Olmert's narrative, which portrays Abbas as an evasive rejectionist. But by his silence, the prime minister is intimating that Kadima's offers are not "dangerous and irresponsible concessions" and that if the Palestinians try him, they will find there is something to talk about.

Netanyahu has a dual interest, external and internal, to advance on the Palestinian track. Israel's international isolation is increasing. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who this week visited Israel, urged Netanyahu to advance the political process. Israel's strategic ally Hosni Mubarak is about to leave the stage. U.S. President Barack Obama, who abandoned the region after his failure to mediate between Netanyahu and Abbas, this week reappeared as the prophet of democracy and change, urging Mubarak to resign immediately. If Obama's call is indeed met, the U.S. president will return to the Israeli-Palestinian arena, too, and will hand Netanyahu the bill.

Domestically, Avigdor Lieberman has usurped the leadership of the ideological right from Netanyahu. If he is to return to the political center, Netanyahu needs a political breakthrough that will steal the agenda from Kadima leader Tzipi Livni. Netanyahu is still the dominant figure in the political arena, with Lieberman fearing a potential criminal indictment and Barak having lost his party backing.

Speaking in the Knesset on Wednesday, Netanyahu mentioned his concern that change in Egypt could transform it into "another Gaza." He warned against prolonged instability. But he did not just scare his listeners, he also presented solutions: "fortifying Israel's might" (strengthening the army ) and striving for peace with the Palestinians, based on rock-solid security arrangements. The premier spoke about peace as an essential element for Israel's security and made an almost desperate call to Abbas to talk to him. In softened tones, he attacked the "skeptics" (Lieberman ) who do not believe in a peace agreement. Netanyahu expects more flexibility from Abbas, in light of the threat to his rule.

The prime minister has received a second chance - another opportunity to sit for the leadership matriculation exam, as it were. This is his chance to show that he did not return to power only for the limo and the home on Balfour Street.