Netanyahu Won the War (Or So He Says), but Can He Win the Peace?

Will Israel's prime minister choose to be a Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, or Ariel Sharon?

Matthew Kalman
Matthew Kalman
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Netanyahu addressing the UN General Assembly, September 29, 2014.
Netanyahu addressing the UN General Assembly, September 29, 2014.Credit: AFP
Matthew Kalman
Matthew Kalman

As Benjamin Netanyahu nears the point at which he must consider his historical legacy in his policy toward the Palestinians and the Arab world, he has three models of Likud party prime minister to choose from: Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir and Ariel Sharon.

Right now, he is following Shamir's policy of doggedly maintaining the status quo – allowing settlements to expand and gradually undermine both Israel’s international reputation and the viability of a future Palestinian state, while doing nothing to advance the chances of restarting the peace process.

The do-nothing policy seemed to work for Shamir – until the First Intifada bit him in the butt, dragging him to the Madrid Peace Conference and opening the way to the Oslo Accords.

Even though Netanyahu may overhaul Ben-Gurion's record time in office, if he continues on his current path there will be little to show for the Bibi years, just as there is little diplomacy worth remembering of the Shamir era.

Away from the conflict, Shamir will be remembered mostly for spearheading the extraordinary airlift of Ethiopian Jews in Operation Moses and Operation Solomon. Netanyahu has no such triumphs to leaven his resume. The economy, once his flagship, is sinking. The high-tech revolution that was launched by Yitzhak Rabin and shepherded by Netanyahu is showing few benefits for the vast majority of Israelis. Netanyahu’s Thatcherite privatization has increased competition, but it has also helped nurture a new generation of Israeli oligarchs whose obscene earnings and stranglehold on the country’s wealth are an increasing cause for concern.

As he enters the downcurve of his career, I’m guessing Netanyahu must be tempted to land with a historic splash that will leave a greater mark on history than cottage cheese and price tags.

Will Netanyahu decide to follow Sharon and strike out on an independent path, split his own party, and pursue a radical change in course like Sharon's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip? Or is he looking at the example set by Begin, who carried not just the Likud pary but the entire country into the transformative peace with Egypt?

Just a couple of months ago, Netanyahu hinted that a radical diplomatic shift was in the making. He spoke of “many new possibilities,” after the war in Gaza, in a new diplomatic landscape created by Arab fears over the rise of the Islamic State group and fatigue with the destructive single-mindedness of Hamas.

The Palestinians have done their part, confounding expectations by holding their first cabinet meeting since 2007 in Gaza, clearly demonstrating that President Mahmoud Abbas is boss. Abbas has also given Israel another year to engage in meaningful talks before pursuing unilateral moves in the diplomatic arena. The international community has also done its part, agreeing to fund the reconstruction of Gaza for the third time in less than a decade.

The Arab states have reiterated that the Saudi Peace Plan – now the Arab League Peace Plan – is still on offer.

So far, Netanyahu has failed to respond to any of these developments. No Israeli government has ever responded to the Arab Peace Plan. Instead, Shamir-like, he is allowing Israel to slide into diplomatic paralysis, while allowing settlements to grow – a policy that adds little value to Israelis, inflames hatred among the Palestinians, and infuriates the international community. Israel cannot afford to sit on its hands while unrest grows in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and the chorus of diplomatic criticism rises abroad.

Netanyahu assures Israelis that he won the war in Gaza, but unless he stops being Shamir and follows the example of Begin or Sharon, he is in danger of losing the peace.

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