Benjamin Netanyahu, the Reluctant Leftist

No, Bibi probably hasn't changed his spots, but he's been flanked on the right and has nowhere else to go. Don't hold your breath for peace talks, though.

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Enter Bibi, stage left: Has Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu become a lily-livered, peace-promoting leftist? Not exactly.
Enter Bibi, stage left: Has Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu become a lily-livered, peace-promoting leftist? Not exactly.Credit: Michal Fattal

Last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu granted a series of interviews to Israeli TV networks. All in all, he didn't have anything particularly important to say: Protective Edge was, of course, a success; the defense budget will be increased; and despite his many eulogizers, Netanyahu has every intention of running for - and winning - a fourth term.

Oh, and a “new diplomatic horizon” might be in the cards for the Middle East.

Wait, what? Netanyahu talking about “diplomatic horizons” sounds like an oxymoron. Yet in the last two weeks it seems to have become his favorite phrase, sometimes coupled with “new opportunities” arising thanks to changes in the Middle East.

The fact that Netanyahu - notorious for skepticism regarding peace talks with the Palestinians - has suddenly begun to drop clues about possible negotiations raised quite a few eyebrows.

This is, after all, the same Netanyahu who always maintained that there is “no Palestinian partner for peace”. The same Netanyahu who helped bury the Kerry initiative, and every other attempt to renew the peace process in recent years.

More poignantly: this is the same Netanyahu that only this week authorized the biggest annexation of land in the West Bank in 30 years.

The same Bibi

But it’s also the same Bibi who broke his promise to never negotiate with Hamas. Who decided to end Operation Protective Edge, overriding his cabinet’s opinion.

The mere spectre of possible negotiations with the terrorist organization was enough to send the political system into a frenzy, with senior ministers getting into shouting matches in cabinet, and others taking to Facebook to voice their discontent.

Netanyahu himself kept mum, leaving the world to wonder: is he doing a political U-turn before our very eyes? Has he become a lily-livered, peace-promoting leftist? Will he be running for his fourth term as a center-left candidate?

Is Bibi the second coming of Yitzhak Rabin? Or, the next Ariel Sharon?

The answer to all those questions, probably, is No. So why is Netanyahu suddenly talking about “new diplomatic horizons”?

Because when you can’t take a right, you make a left.

Pounded from all sides

Netanyahu ended Protective Edge battered. He was forced, if only by world opinion, to end the campaign without a clear and decisive victory over Hamas, despite insistent calls from the public and from within his own cabinet to battle on.

Over the past two weeks, Netanyahu took fire from all directions. The right accused him of being too soft on Hamas; the left attacked him for lacking the courage to restart peace negotiations with the Palestinians (or even complete the path of war he himself had chosen). As for the residents of Israel’s south, they just wanted security, and Netanyahu’s ceasefire promised them very little of that. 

With only 50% of the public believing Israel "won the war," a recent “Dialogue” poll showed Netanyahu’s approval rate dropped by 27% in three weeks. Pundits, left and right, started - once again - eulogizing his career as prime minister. Senior ministers like Naftali Bennett and Avigdor Lieberman started distancing themselves from Netanyahu, openly resisting the ceasefire and rebuking him for weakness.

In other words: following the anti-climatic end of Protective Edge, Netanyahu lost his credentials as "the right stuff" to lead a military victory over Hamas. His promises of bringing Israel security without diplomacy have been proven false. His right-wing rivals, who rose to prominence on the very same promise that Netanyahu himself based his career on - eliminating terror by force - now accuse him of failing, , and claim they can do a better job.

In that way, Netanyahu is a victim of the sharp right-shift turn he himself inspired in Israeli politics. With Bennett and Lieberman flanking him on the right, Netanyahu is seen as weak by the same standards he himself had laid out.

When war isn't an option

But the cunning Netanyahu isn't about to go down without a fight. With the option of war extinguished and outflanked on the right, all that's left is diplomacy.

So why, if he’s intent on appearing as a newfound diplomat, is Netanyahu annexing over a thousand acres in the West Bank?

Because Netanyahu doesn’t really want negotiations. Given the atmosphere in Israel, that would be tantamount to political suicide.

Also, Netanyahu truly hates making dramatic decisions. But he needs to seem capable of making them. So he drops hints about “diplomatic horizons” and meanwhile sabotages his own new effort by a massive land grab.

In a way, it is a classic Netanyahu ploy: make the world think you’ve grown, but make sure it goes no further than a few headlines. Make people think you have the capacity for peace, when in actuality, he lacks the capacity to decide.