His Life's Mission

Netanyahu is likely to go further in concessions in Washington than he ever has before. But too late. He and his Palestinian counterpart Abbas have spent two years pushing their respective historical narratives instead of concerning themselves with a better future for their peoples.

More than any other event in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's long career, his current trip to Washington, D.C., symbolizes his aspiration to go down in history as the leader who saved the Jewish state from the enemies plotting to destroy it. Not by chance, this week Netanyahu presented his diplomatic plan to the Knesset plenum in a session dedicated to the memory of Theodor Herzl. Netanyahu, too, sees himself as a visionary who identified the lurking danger in time and, upon coming to provide salvation, won the enthusiasm of, as he put it, the "common Jews in the villages and towns" as opposed to "the richer and more intellectual Jews in the West." This is how Netanyahu sees himself.

Now Netanyahu is in exactly the place he loves best, at the forefront of the diplomatic struggle against the Palestinian national movement and its leader, President Mahmoud Abbas. Each of them is mustering his loyal troops to his side: Abbas, the members of the United Nations; Netanyahu, the members of the U.S. Congress. Both of them are assembling support at home: Abbas in the reconciliation agreement he signed with Hamas; Netanyahu in his assertion that "most people" agree with his positions.

Netanyahu and Abbas
Amos Biderman

Netanyahu's close adviser Defense Minister Ehud Barak has been telling him for the past two years that wise statesmanship rests on three elements: military strength, domestic agreement, and American support. American support, however, comes with a price - the demonstration of Israeli willingness to withdraw from the territories. Precisely at a time of diplomatic conflict, when there is no Palestinian partner for a peace process and agreement, it is important that Israel not look obdurate.

After two years, it appears Netanyahu has internalized that message. In his Knesset speech on Monday he said for the first time that "we must maintain the settlement blocs," which "must remain inside the borders of the State of Israel." This statement implies what is not included: The isolated settlements beyond the fence and outside the blocs, which Israel will agree to relinquish in a future agreement with the Palestinians. The formula is not new, but Netanyahu never dared utter it publicly until this week. Every time he brought up the concept of "blocs" at meetings of the inner cabinet, he was answered with a sharp speech from Minister without Portfolio Benny Begin, and he backed off.

Now it seems Netanyahu is more interested in mollifying U.S. President Barack Obama than Benny Begin. Today Netanyahu will meet Obama and, judging by the hints he scattered before the trip, will express more explicit opinions in the closed room - centering on willingness for the establishment of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, with territorial swaps to compensate the Palestinians for annexation of the settlement blocs to Israel.

His words will enable Obama to say Netanyahu wants peace and is prepared for compromise, and that hence the Palestinians must return to the negotiating table instead of circumventing it by applying to the UN and making a unilateral declaration of the state.

In his speech to Congress this coming Tuesday, Netanyahu will apparently present a fuzzier formulation. "He knows that if he says 1967, he has no government," explains an associate of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Netanyahu's flexibility is wrapped in layer upon layer of pre-conditions, which the Palestinians reject outright. He is demanding they recognize Israel as "the state of the Jewish people," that Jerusalem remain united, that Hamas not participate in the Palestinian government, that Palestine be demilitarized, and that the Israel Defense Forces be deployed along its border with Jordan in order to prevent arms-smuggling. Here he is not speaking about a military presence in the Jordan Valley but rather "along the Jordan River" - i.e., a security zone far narrower than he had been demanding in previous months.

Barak convinced him that defending Israel does not require military control of the entire Jordan Valley. It suffices to hold the river line, and Ma'aleh Adumim and Ariel. If Israel is threatened from the eastern front, the IDF will be able to deploy in the valley within a few hours while the enemy's armies are being stopped from the air by long-range "stand-off weapons." Vice Prime Minister Moshe Ya'alon disagrees with this approach: "The Jordan Valley," he said in response to Netanyahu's speech, "has to be under Israeli sovereignty, in the broadest sense of the word. Where there is no plowing, the land is lost."

After more than two years in the job, Netanyahu is adopting the Kadima platform and going back to the previous government's Annapolis process. Had he presented his current positions immediately upon his return to office, perhaps he would have received more in return. But that's how Netanyahu is. He would rather quote Herzl than learn from him that a daring initiative can create a new reality. "Netanyahu," says a senior official who closely accompanied him in the past, "wants everything to work out and for everyone to be pleased before he makes a move. There is a big gap for him between the understanding of the reality and the willingness for action." He will act only when there is no alternative, when his balance of anxieties reverses.

And thus Netanyahu dithered, and no sooner had he come to the 1967 borders, the agenda turned upside down and returned to 1948. The Palestinian refugees from Syria who burst through the Golan Heights border fence on Nakba Day last Sunday symbolize a new phase in the Palestinian struggle. Not stone-throwing or suicide attacks, but instead unarmed processions with a demand for historical justice. In their public statements, Netanyahu and Abbas made it clear this week that the struggle between them is being waged over the refugees and the right of return, the question of who is right and who is evil, who was here first and who the foreign invader is. Instead of concerning themselves with a better future for both peoples, the leaders prefer to flee backward to the historical narratives.

It is impossible to compromise over the past. The Palestinians are not going to declare that Israel belongs to the Jewish people, which would be to say they have no rights here, and Israel is not going to accept "the right of return" and admit by implication that Zionism is a foreign colonization movement. Neither side will declare itself the invader of a land not its own.

Upon taking office, Obama promised to deal with the conflict and establish a Palestinian state, and he has not accomplished anything. Abbas and Netanyahu have exhausted him with their evasive maneuvers. His peace envoy to the region, George Mitchell - whose appointment was depicted as a wonder drug - failed entirely to renew the negotiations and resigned at the end of last week.

According to the reports reaching Jerusalem, Obama is furious, both at Abbas - who signed the agreement with Hamas - and at Netanyahu, who has barricaded himself in with his refusal to move. American officials have complained to Israeli interlocutors: "You keep asking us to help you, against Goldstone, against Iran, against the international recognition of Palestine, and you aren't giving us anything. You can't beat something with nothing."

Netanyahu will have to give something to Obama that will justify the American effort to soften the Palestinian effort at the UN. His position will be backed by the rousing cheers he will receive from the members of a joint session of Congress, who will signal to the president that Netanyahu enjoys broad support in America. Judging by early indications, Obama has in the meantime relinquished a presentation of an imposed arrangement - as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggested to him. He has taken the advice of Dennis Ross, his adviser on the Middle East, not to risk a peace plan that will fail, like all its predecessors.

Obama, who is vying for re-election and will soon seek the support of the Israel lobby, will envelop Netanyahu in declarations of love and support. He will call upon the Palestinians to return to negotiations and to refrain from unilateral moves. This will suffice for the prime minister to return from Washington happy. But it will not suffice to prevent the approaching confrontation between Israel and the Palestinians, especially when Obama is hailing "nonviolent protest" as a way to bring about political change. In the refugee camps they will understand his position as encouragement for the coming processions. Dealing with them is going to be a lot harder for Netanyahu than making the speech on Capitol Hill.