Netanyahu Is Positioning Himself Left of Rabin

Netanyahu has crossed Rubicon, both ideologically and practically, and reinvented himself as a centrist.

Benjamin Netanyahu made history twice. The first time was when he adopted the two-state solution in his Bar-Ilan speech, and the second was when he decided last week to freeze settlement construction. The Palestinians dismiss his steps and the Europeans say they're not enough. The skeptics are skeptical and the cynics are cynical. But the truth is that Netanyahu circa 2009 is situating himself to the left of Yitzhak Rabin circa 1995.

Unlike Rabin, Netanyahu now accepts the establishment of a demilitarized Palestinian state. Unlike Rabin, he is issuing orders prohibiting construction throughout the Jewish West Bank. Netanyahu has crossed the Rubicon, on both ideological and practical levels, and reinvented himself as a centrist.

At the beginning of this decade, Ariel Sharon underwent a similar process, with the road map his equivalent of Netanyahu's Bar-Ilan speech. The road map expressed his support for the two-state concept, while insisting that essential basic conditions be fulfilled before the establishment of a Palestinian state.

But a short time after accepting the road map, Sharon revealed that its trails led to a dead end. No Palestinians met the basic conditions, no Palestinians were capable of signing a final-status agreement, no Palestinians had the power to implement peace. When the father of the settlements finally came out in favor of dividing the land, it turned out that there were no Palestinian leaders likewise committed to dividing the land.

Thus was the disengagement born. Although Sharon was aware of its flaws, he realized that disengagement was the only plan of action a centrist Israeli leader could advance without a real partner for real peace.

Six years later, Netanyahu has reached the exact same point. He accepts the principle of two states, and receives no response. He suspends construction in the settlements, and is rejected. He courts Mahmoud Abbas, and is disparaged. The son of Ze'ev Jabotinsky's personal secretary wants a historic reconciliation with the Palestinians, and the Palestinians are slamming the door. He is offering the Palestinian national movement negotiations over the establishment of a Palestinian nation-state, and has found that there's no one to talk to and nothing to talk about. Zilch. A brick wall.

Few people are close to the prime minister, but among the few who are, some say he has indeed undergone a turnabout. Israel's might, not the settlements or the settlers, is his top priority. Therefore, had there been a proposal on the table assuring Israel's security in exchange for a painful withdrawal, Netanyahu would not hesitate. The tragedy is that there is no such offer - and no such table. Negotiations haven't even begun. Abbas isn't giving Netanyahu anything he can use to put the centrist worldview he has adopted into action.

Under such circumstances, Netanyahu has two options. One is Shaul Mofaz's plan: the establishment of a Palestinian state with temporary borders. The second is Disengagement II: the evacuation of about 20 West Bank settlements and their transfer to the Fayyad government. The Mofaz plan has major advantages, but it makes Netanyahu fear unlimited and unrestrained Palestinian sovereignty. This means he might be forced to seriously consider the other option. We can't rule out that in 2010 Netanyahu will find himself pushing a limited withdrawal, just as Sharon did in 2004 and 2005.

Disengagement II will have to be completely different from its predecessor. It will have to be coordinated with the Palestinian Authority and granted European support, and it will have to turn the evacuated area into an economic prosperity zone. It will need to prevent Palestinians from smuggling in weapons and increasing their military might, and must assure Israel's right to self-defense. Such a plan would have to be part of an overall strategic outlook that pushes both peoples toward peace through measured, circumspect and coordinated unilateral steps. A second disengagement would have to be an improved version of the first, a plan with a political dimension and an economic depth that would strengthen the moderates - Palestinians as well as Israelis.

If the prime minister dares to go forward with Disengagement II, things would be easier for Israel on all fronts. It would help Netanyahu in domestic politics, just as the first disengagement helped Sharon, and it would turn the prime minister into the new leader of the Israeli center.