Netanyahu's Choice: Will He Be a Peacemaker or a Pariah?

Only one man in Israel can decide whether there will be two states or one between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean: Benjamin Netanyahu. Now is his chance for greatness – or disgrace.

S. Daniel Abraham
S. Daniel Abraham
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S. Daniel Abraham
S. Daniel Abraham

Anwar Sadat's decision to fly to Jerusalem was an immensely historical turning point - and changed the face of the Middle East. The Egyptian leader's decision presented a significant challenge to his Israeli counterpart: Menachem Begin also had to decide. And Begin made a decision: For peace. Begin and Sadat were leaders of very different regimes. Nevertheless, were it not for the very personal decisions they made, a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt would not have been signed.

Since that peace treaty was concluded in 1978, Israel has fought no wars with Egypt, though it had fought five wars with her in the preceding thirty years. The peace agreement survived the overthrow of Mubarak and the rise to power of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Sometimes, we tend to underestimate the importance of one leader's decision in democratic countries. We tend, rightly so, to see the democratic regime as a system of checks and balances that limit the power of the head of state. Indeed, the leader of a democratic state is subject to the law, he or she must maintain various coalitions (such as is the case in Israel), must take the Knesset, parliament or congress into account, and must bow to the decisions of the judicial branch.

But still, only the leader can make the difference. No one else. Thus, in the elaborate democratic structure of the United States there is no question about the identity of the man who tilts the scale: Whether to militarily intervene in Syria or to attack Iran's nuclear facilities. The answer is clear: only one person - President Obama.

One leader in Egypt and one leader in Israel made the decision then, and one leader in Israel makes the decisions for Israel today. Obviously, in Israel the prime minister is the leader of a democratic nation and always should be attuned to the wishes of the people. But equally true, if a leader wants to make something happen, he, and perhaps he alone, is the one who can make it happen.

Today, the question of whether Israel will remain in the direction it is now heading, one country from the Jordan to the Mediterranean, or whether it will divide the country through an agreement with the Palestinian people is going to be decided by one person. And the impact of that leader's decision will be felt for decades, if not longer.

We already have the benefit of hindsight to see how decisions made by Israeli leaders in the 1970s have defined Israel today. But imagine an alternate history. Imagine, for example, how different Israel would look today if it had decided in the 1970s - around the time it was making peace with Egypt - to pour tens of billions of dollars into settling the Negev instead of the West Bank. If the money invested in constructing settlements in the West Bank would have gone to the Negev, the Israeli desert would have bloomed. With high-speed trains and new roads the Negev today could have been as close to Tel Aviv as the West Bank. And without two-and-a-half million Palestinian residents detesting us as occupiers.

But a series of decisions were made then that settlers should be allowed to build throughout much of the West Bank, and those decisions have now turned Israel into a pariah state in much of the world. And, in addition, this has led to the Jewish state ruling over an Arab population that will soon outnumber Israel's Jewish population.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has foresworn all violence, and adhered to that pledge, while ushering in a period of unparalleled security cooperation. Abu Mazen is a Palestinian patriot and therefore not everything he says and does is welcomed with applause in Israel. But he has made it clear that he wishes to reach a permanent agreement with Israel that will put an end to all mutual claims. And inside Israel, one man will make a decision to either have two states between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean or one state. That man is Benjamin Netanyahu.

In truth, the Prime Minister has an opportunity for greatness granted to few. The Prime Minster who makes the peace, and guarantees Israel's future as a Jewish state, will go down for the rest of history as one of the Jewish people's great heroes. The prime minister who serves in office while the Arabs in a 'Greater' Israel come to outnumber the Jews will go down in history with a very different reputation.
It is as basic as that. One man. And the choice is in his hands.

S. Daniel Abraham is an American entrepreneur and the founder of the Center for Middle East Peace in Washington D.C.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.Credit: Moti Milrod

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