Netanyahu's T-junction

PM Benjamin Netanyahu faces a choice: Does he want to be Menachem Begin or does he want to be Golda Meir?

Yitzhak Shamir was wrong, but he was not stupid. When he served as prime minister, the idea that time was on Israel's side had not yet been disproved. The Soviet Union was on the wane, and finally collapsed. The United States became the sole superpower. As a result, Israel's international standing was bolstered, while its enemies lost the ability to attack it militarily. A massive wave of high-quality immigrants from the former Soviet Union strengthened Israel demographically and economically. A new world order, a new regional order and a new domestic order gave it a wide margin of security.

Thus, when Shamir left the Prime Minister's Office in 1992, he left behind a country whose strategic power was immeasurably greater than it had been five years earlier. He erred in not taking advantage of this golden era to forge stabilizing diplomatic agreements. But he was right that during his term of office, it wasn't totally pointless to attempt to preserve the status quo.

That is not the situation today. There are some in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's inner circle who miss Shamir. They see him as a kind of Israeli Eisenhower, remember his modest success and seek to replicate it; they don't move, don't concede, buy time. They allow the underlying trends to work in Israel's favor, as they did in the past. They don't get involved in diplomatic adventures of the type launched by Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, but build our national home from within, cool-headedly and patiently.

But if Netanyahu is indeed seriously considering the Shamir option, he would do well to think again. Indeed, he would do well to rethink his position two and three and four times. For the sea is not the same sea, the Arabs are not the same Arabs, and the world is not the same world. The reality of 2010 is immeasurably crueler than that of 1990.

In 1990, Israel had the ability to strike anywhere in the Middle East at any moment. In 2010, Israel's enemies have the ability to strike anywhere in Israel at any given moment. Hamas is capable of hitting downtown Tel Aviv with dozens of Iranian rockets, which have a range of 75 kilometers and carry 150-kilogram warheads. Hezbollah is capable of hitting Israel's heartland with thousands of rockets, hundreds of missiles and even several Scuds, which carry warheads of up to half a ton.

Syria's capabilities are intimidating. So are Iran's. And Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas have enclosed Israel in a noose of threats that in Shamir's day would have been viewed as delusional.

In 1990, the disposition of the Middle East was stable. It managed to digest two Gulf wars, two intifadas and two limited wars without exploding. Why? Because the United States was king of the world. It led a strong regional coalition of moderates that ensured strategic stability.

In 2010, the disposition of the Middle East is not stable. The United States is in retreat, and Iran is trying to replace it as the leading regional power. Egypt and Iraq are each on the threshold of a new era, and Saudi Arabia is mired in uncertainty. The forces that undermine stability are on the rise, while the stabilizing forces are in disarray.

The picture is clear: The historic window of opportunity that opened during Shamir's term - but which he failed to exploit - is closing. The Middle East's 20 good years are coming to an end. And the same is true of Israel's 20 good years.

Today, Israel is threatened both militarily and diplomatically as it has not been since the Soviet Union collapsed. And tomorrow, the situation is liable to be worse. If current trends continue undisturbed, they will lead to an explosion. No one knows when and where the explosion will occur. But sooner or later, whether in the south or in the north, there will be some incident that sets off the blast.

The conclusion is also clear: Netanyahu does not have a Shamir option. Netanyahu has no status quo to which he can cling. In the absence of an Israeli diplomatic initiative that will halt the current trends, the avalanche will surely come. The intersection at which the prime minister stands is a T-junction: He must turn either right or left. If Benjamin Netanyahu does not become Menachem Begin, he will become Golda Meir.