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.
In what was certainly a first, Netanyahu was praised by an editor of the left-wing newspaper Ha’aretz on the pages of the equally liberal Washington Post. For his performance on the White House lawn, Netanyahu was hailed as a “moderate, level-headed leader” by Aluf Benn:
Contrary to popular wisdom, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is proving to be the most dovish leader that Israel has had in many years, one who is using military force cautiously and seeking, at long last, a diplomatic resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “I came here today to find an historic compromise that will enable both our peoples to live in peace and security and in dignity,” he said at last week’s Middle East peace summit at the White House. These are words that most Israelis never expected to hear “Bibi” utter.
So enraptured was Benn with his prime minister that he not only compared Netanyahu’s changed posture to his Israeli predecessors, but to President Richard Nixon’s decision to make his historic trip to China.
The mirror image to Benn’s enthusiasm was the stinging commentary of the Jerusalem Post’s Caroline Glick. Glick, previously a supporter of Netanyahu’s hard-line positions, wrote unhappily:
The most distressing aspect of Netanyahu’s enthusiastic participation in a process the Israeli public rationally opposes is that it is him doing it. With Netanyahu now joining the ranks of those who attack Israel’s defenders as enemies of peace and claim that defending the country is antithetical to peace, who is left to defend us?
So is Netanyahu, like Begin, Rabin, and Ariel Sharon before him, on the verge of a transformation when it comes to territorial compromise? Is he truly willing to antagonize and subsequently lose his right flank in order to pursue the peace process as actively as he has promised, including what will be painful concessions?
At his cabinet meeting on Sunday morning, it sounded like that very well might happen. “There may be some important countries which have yet to stand up for a move of peace, but my impression from their willingness to reach peace despite the attacks reflects a feeling of maturity in the Arab world,” Netanyahu said.
For now, those to the right of the prime minister — most prominently, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman — are still watching and waiting, hoping that it turns out that instead of a real change of heart, Netanyahu is playing a high-stakes game of chicken. Indeed, if he believes that the Palestinian leadership is in too weak a position to seriously sign a peace agreement with Israel, he loses nothing by posturing himself as willing to compromise. By playing ball in a game on which both Obama and Hillary Clinton have staked their personal prestige, he earns American goodwill on issues crucial to Israel, such as the tough line on Iran’s nuclear program.
He is also carefully laying the ground for the “blame game” that will quickly ensue, should negotiations collapse, as they have in the past.
That is the line that some Palestinian leaders, clearly confused and thrown by the new Netanyahu, are pushing. Calling Netanyahu an “operator” and a “con man,” they accuse him of trying to fool Obama and the world into believing he’s interested in compromise and peace when it is all an act designed to put the ball in the Palestinian’s court.
The key date on which Netanyahu will have to show his his cards is September 26. On that day, the nine-month freeze in new construction in the settlements that Netanyahu agreed to as a goodwill gesture is set to expire.
The Palestinians have now threatened repeatedly that if building begins again after that day, they will pull out of the direct talks. If that happens, there is no way Netanyahu could escape the blame.
But if he continues the freeze, particularly without any corresponding gesture from the Palestinians, there is a strong likelihood that the far-right parties will pull out of his coalition. Then he would have to scramble to reshuffle his government. Those familiar with Israeli politics know that these internal negotiations will be at least as challenging — if not more so — than anything he faces in Washington.