Strenger Than Fiction / Advice to Netanyahu: Forget Churchill, Try De Gaulle

Prime Minister Netanyahu likes to model himself along the lines of great statesmen.

Two weeks ago I published an article in which I predicted that the Middle East peace talks would fail. I continue to be highly skeptical, but will be more than happy to eat my words and to light a candle for Bibi, if they succeed.

Benjamin Netanyahu AP September 5, 2010

Netanyahu likes to think in large historical contexts, and he likes to model himself along the lines of great statesmen. So far, Churchill has been his favorite, because Bibi thinks of himself of the Churchill that warns the world of Political Islam while the Chamberlains of this world are trying to appease it. Churchill certainly was a great statesman, but he was not without his faults, so I would suggest that Netanyahu tries another role model, no less grand in stature (and a lot taller): Charles de Gaulle.

Let us assume that Benjamin Netanyahu is indeed going for the historical peace of the leaders that he has been talking about since Washington. Let us assume Ehud Barak’s statement that Israel is ready to accept that the Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem will be part of Palestine, and that the holy basin will be under some form of international sovereignty, reflects Bibi’s intentions. Let us assume that Netanyahu indeed wants to be a leader who wants to convince Israelis that peace is possible. How can he do this?

Netanyahu’s situation is not that different from that of de Gaulle when he came to power in 1958: de Gaulle initially supported France’s continuing rule over Algeria. He showed that great leaders can change their minds on crucial issues, and began to work towards Algerian independence.

Like de Gaulle, Netanyahu doesn’t come from the left that has supported the idea of a Palestinian state for many years, and that supported Algerian independence in the 1950s. Like de Gaulle, Netanyahu faces stiff opposition from his own constituency, if he moves towards establishing a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders. But if anything, de Gaulle’s situation was more difficult. There were more generations of French settlers who had been born in Algeria, who felt that France was betraying him than there are generations of Jewish settlers in the West Bank. In 1961, a group of French generals with wide support attempted to overthrow de Gaulle, and there were several attempts on de Gaulle’s life led by French settlers in Algeria.

Netanyahu, I believe, is better off. I don’t think that he would face either an attempt on his life or that he would have to stare down a military coup. It seems that the majority of settlers are gradually coming to terms with the fact that Israel will not hold on to the territories. The recent discussions about how a one-state solution would look have served an important purpose: they have made clear to overwhelming majority of Israelis that the one-state solution is unworkable, and that that the window of opportunity for the two-state solution is closing. Hence Netanyahu is entering the process under favorable conditions.

De Gaulle was greatly helped by his credibility in leading toward Algerian independence: the French didn’t forget that de Gaulle had represented an honorable and free France during the Nazi occupation. Nobody doubted his patriotism. And it helped that de Gaulle was not perceived as part of the left that had wanted to get out of Algeria for quite some time, but that he had made up his mind, that the current situation was impossible.

The analogies are quite surprising. Netanyahu is perceived as a staunch patriot, and is placed solidly right of center. This is good, because many Israelis are highly suspicious towards leftists who speak too much about Palestinian human rights. He was an opponent of the Oslo process, which also helps, because many Israelis see it as a symbol of the left’s naiveté. He can play the card of telling the Israeli public, that, despite his pain, he has come to the conclusion that, after all, Israel needs to let go of all the territories, and that he does so because it’s good for the Jews and not for the Palestinians.

Netanyahu is possibly in the strongest position an Israeli prime minister has had for a long time. None of his coalition partners have a stranglehold on him, because he has the backup option of pulling Kadima into his government to support a bid for peace.

So it’s now up to Netanyahu. Picking de Gaulle as a model has many advantages; and it won’t require Bibi to exchange Churchill’s Cigars for de Gaulle’s uniform. Monsieur de Netanyahu: place your bets. History’s croupier is about to say “rien ne va plus.”