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Will the Real Bibi Netanyahu Please Stand Up?

Israelis on the right and the left are wondering whether their prime minister may be undergoing a political mid-life crisis.

by
Allison Kaplan Sommer

Bio

September 6, 2010 - 12:00 am
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It was difficult for Israelis to get excited about the pictures of President Obama flanked by Middle East leaders at the White House last week in the opening hoopla of the direct peace talks. Regular television programming in Israel was suspended, and instead of soap operas or afternoon game shows on Israeli television, blanket coverage of the smiles, handshakes, speeches, and numerous photo opportunities took over the airwaves. But to the viewer — and the onscreen commentators — the events seemed just as staged and artificial as the usual television fare.

“Those Americans, they like to start these things off with some nice pictures,” commented Arab affairs correspondent Ehud Ya’ari cynically during the live broadcast of the opening ceremony. “There are a lot of cameras around, so they are all saying ‘cheese.’”

Ya’ari’s tone made it clear that he believed the scene wouldn’t remain a pretty tableau for long.

Already, the view from the Middle East had become downright ugly. Israelis were mourning the four civilians who were slaughtered by terrorists outside Hebron, among them, a pregnant woman. They were the first victims of the newly revived peace process, and, it was gloomily predicted, they wouldn’t be the last.

Even without the attacks, reaction in Israel to the media circus in Washington was bound to be subdued. Israelis have seen so many approaches start out optimistically and then fail miserably, they weren’t about to become hopeful too quickly.

And yet, one element caught their attention. To both right and left, Prime Minster Binyamin Netanyahu, as he took his place in front of the microphones, seemed different from the politician they thought they knew. From the outset, there was one concrete change pundits focused on. Three times he used a phrase that had never before been uttered by a leader of his party. Netanyahu became the first Likud leader to publicly use the term “West Bank” to refer to the post-1967 territory instead of the traditional reference to “Judea and Samaria.” None of his predecessors did that — not Menachem Begin, not Yitzhak Shamir, not Ariel Sharon (even after he broke away from Likud to form the Kadima Party).

According to Yediot Aharonot correspondent Shimon Shiffer, who asked him about the change in his semantics after his speech, Netanyahu looked “embarrassed” about his use of the term and said that it was done for practical reasons and was not evidence of a change in ideology. But Shiffer pointed out in an interview on Israel radio that “Netanyahu also did other things in that speech that I never thought he would do.”

When Netanyahu declared that the Hamas terror attack would not derail Israel’s determination to pursue negotiations, Shiffer said that veteran diplomatic reporters were reminded of an Oslo-era Yitzhak Rabin. Shiffer and his colleagues noted the irony — back in the days of Oslo, Netanyahu was one of Rabin’s harshest critics, attacking him mercilessly for pursuing peace in the face of Palestinian violence.

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