JERUSALEM — "Reckless," "cavalier," "unscrupulous," "petty politician, not statesman"…these and such epithets applied to Benjamin Netanyahu by friends and foes alike — not that he ended up with many friends — when he was first Israel’s Prime Minister back in the late 1990s.
Re-elected in February, Netanyahu seemed aware of the question on everyone’s lips — foes and new-found friends alike: Will Bibi the Second be different from Bibi the First?
For the first hundred days in office the answer was still in the balance, although most Israelis, and even U.S. citizens, were prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt that he had changed, that Benjamin Netanyahu was no longer Bibi.
Now, there’s little doubt: Bibi’s back.
This week he railroaded a controversial law through the Knesset, allowing fractious dissidents to break away from the political list on which they were elected. Bibi’s transparent purpose was to consolidate his right-wing coalition by creating an avenue for the former defense minister, Shaul Mofaz, number two in the main opposition Kadima, to rejoin Netanyahu’s Likud party.
But Mofaz, calling the Prime Minister "a lowly political wheeler-dealer," refused to act on a law which disparagingly bears his name. Although he criticizes his own party leader Tsipi Livni for not joining the Netanyahu-led government, he made plain that he himself would not stoop so low as to serve Netanyahu’s purpose.
"How you can allow yourself to promote such a law. The time has come for you to behave like a Prime Minister," he chastised Netanyahu. "Maybe it’s because you believe you’re allowed to do anything," he went on, "Maybe you’ve reached the conclusion that you have to survive at any price."
Too true, Netanyahu critics argue. But Bibi himself intimates that it’s about much more than mere political survival; he believes that, as Israel’s leader, he knows what really ails the Middle East, and what needs to be done to divert the region from conflict.
In May, Netanyahu came away from his Oval Office encounter with President Barack Obama chastened and clearly shaken. The new U.S. drive for peace and reconciliation between Arabs and Israelis, almost at any cost, also left him deeply worried.
But, until he finally spat out what Obama had been demanding of him — just three words, "two-state solution" — he’d surprisingly steered away from voicing naked opposition.
Similarly, he adopted a low-profile opposition to Obama’s demand for a total settlement freeze, allowing him to convert a confrontation into "a negotiation between friends."
But then, having regained his old self-confidence, Netanyahu called the old Bibi genie to his rescue. When the question of Israeli expansion into occupied east Jerusalem was put on the table, he eagerly latched onto the low-level U.S. call to halt one small building project in a Palestinian neighborhood.
Bombastically, Bibi declared, "no one can put a limit on Israeli sovereignty" anywhere in the entire city, or stop Jews being allowed to live "anywhere in Jerusalem."
Unlike his first three months in office, the old pugnacious Bibi was back, stridently rebuking critics, while pulling no punches. "The White House should understand, settlements are not the be-all and end-all in trying to solve the conflict," Netanyahu aides were given free rein to observe at every turn. "The conflict is every bit as much about the Arab world being prepared to recognize Israel as a Jewish state and accepting it as an indelible part of the region."
The U.S. has admitted that, alongside the settlement freeze demand, it has been seeking to win concessions from Arab states about normalizing their relations with Israel. Israeli officials take delight in noting that, thus far, Saudi Arabia and other Arab states close to the U.S. have resisted the entreaties.
From fearing pressure for non-compliance on the U.S. settlement demand, Bibi now seems to believe that this failure to get a reciprocal move on the Arab side actually gives him leverage to contain that pressure.
Netanyahu and the special U.S. presidential envoy, George Mitchell, reported "progress" on the settlement dispute when they met on Tuesday. But, Netanyahu continues to insist that before he stops all settlement building for a limited time, he wants a U.S. green light to complete 700 buildings containing 25,000 homes which are, "in an advanced state of building." This would amount to a U.S. backtrack. They’ve agreed to meet again next month in Jerusalem.
The settlement dispute may have been at the core of their discussion, but beneath it lies another point of leverage which Netanyahu seems not at all loath to use in countering U.S. pressure. Every conversation with Israeli Foreign Ministry officials about the prospects of implementing a two-state solution inevitably deviates to an Israeli "reservation." They argue: With Hamas remaining in power in Gaza, and the Palestinian Authority’s power limited to the West Bank, how can the U.S. seriously contemplate the credibility of a Palestinian state?
Bibi is now also confidently speaking out on where he thinks the U.S. is going wrong on the other issue which splits him from the President — Iran. Israeli criticism of Obama’s "weak performance" in tackling the challenge of North Korea, and in not openly confronting the Ayatollahs in Iran in their crackdown against their opponents does not come directly from the Prime Minister’s office, but via well-briefed Israeli analysts and columnists.
On the Iranian nuclear threat, however, Bibi is back speaking his mind.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates paid a lightning visit to Jerusalem this week to ease Israeli uncertainties, and duly declared that the U.S. would always stand firm in guaranteeing Israel’s security. But he also made a point of repeating the Obama dictum that a Palestinian-Israeli agreement would help undermine Iran’s intention to constitute a threat.
Netanyahu did not respond to that directly, but brushed off the relevance of the Gates statement when on Tuesday evening he spoke at the National Security College in Jerusalem: "The growth of radical Islam is being curtailed. They will not have their way. The only thing that can resuscitate the threat of the radical Islamists is if they get a bomb. That is why Iran must be stopped from acquiring nuclear capability — at all costs," he said.
Gates also publicly reiterated Obama’s urging of Iran to engage in talks by the end of September. Netanyahu did not find it necessary to voice publicly his skepticism over the U.S. engage-Iran policy.
Bibi clearly believes he’ll be proven right that the U.S. approach is wrong. Especially, the Prime Minister’s aides point out, when they’ve just heard U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton say that the U.S. would provide a "defense umbrella" to its Middle East allies — on the presumption that Iran won’t ever back down from its nuclear ambitions, whatever path the U.S. chooses to take.
(Inter Press Service)