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PIPES: Is Netanyahu turning left?

Israeli leaders often try to seal their legacy with accommodation

With Syria aflame and Egypt at the precipice, why did Secretary of State John F. Kerry disproportionately just devote his fifth visit since February to Israeli-Palestinian shuttle diplomacy?

In part, because, he and other liberals think that the Arab and Iranian (and now Turkish?) war on Israel boils down to an Israel-Palestinian conflict and, therefore, they overemphasize this dimension; in part, too, because he subscribes to the liberal illusion that Israel-related issues constitute the "epicenter" of the region (as James L. Jones, President Obama's former national security adviser, once put it), so their resolution must precede dealing with other Middle Eastern problems.

There's another possible reason for Mr. Kerry's enthusiasm: He took the measure of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and found him indeed serious about reaching an accord with the Palestinians, and not just pretending enthusiasm to please Washington.

This, anyway, is the thesis of David M. Weinberg of Bar-Ilan University writing in Israel Hayom: "Netanyahu has been making uncharacteristically passionate statements about the diplomatic process; statements that go beyond the expected chatter about Israel's desire to engage the Palestinians and negotiate a two-state solution."

Mr. Weinberg finds that "Netanyahu is desperate for diplomatic movement [having] bought into the left-wing argument that the status quo is unsustainable." Mr. Weinberg perceives preparations now underway for "a unilateral Israeli initiative to concede significant parts of Judea and Samaria."

Why should Mr. Netanyahu, who emphatically did not campaign on this platform, make such plans? Mr. Weinberg looks mainly to domestic politics:

"Netanyahu has no other national agenda item to sustain his prime ministership. He needs a new message that will reposition him as a leader in the public mind, and the Palestinian issue is all he's got to work with. The lead on economic and social matters has been grabbed by [political competitors Yair] Lapid and [Naftali] Bennett. There's little Netanyahu can do about the hot situation in Syria or Iran. His job is to react wisely and cautiously to developments on these fronts, not lead Israel into confrontation."

A unilateral Israeli withdrawal, Mr. Weinberg notes, "would blow the Lapid-Bennett alliance out of the water — something which is Netanyahu's highest political priority." The prime minister would then "bask in the glow of praise of Washington and Tel Aviv elites," pick up support from the center and left, and presumably coast to another electoral victory.

This explanation does not convince me: Iran poses a potentially existential threat to Israel and coping with it quite suffices to "sustain his prime ministership." The Israeli public is focused on Tehran, not Ramallah, and Mr. Netanyahu, who boasts that he spends 70 percent of his time on security issues, hardly needs diplomacy with Mahmoud Abbas to prove his leadership.

Rather, his motives probably lie elsewhere: Like other prime ministers of Israel, Mr. Netanyahu suffers from what I have dubbed the "Ben-Gurion complex," a desire to go down in Jewish history as a renowned leader. (David Ben-Gurion oversaw the founding of the modern state of Israel.) In his third term and (after Ben-Gurion himself) the country's second-longest serving prime minister, Mr. Netanyahu is all the more susceptible to this aspiration.

Post-1948, the Ben-Gurion complex these days translates into ending the external threats to Israel. Unfortunately, this dream has inspired a pattern of duplicity and distortion. As I described the phenomenon in 2004, "First, every elected prime minister [since 1992, being Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon and Mr. Netanyahu] has broken his word on how he would deal with the Arabs. Second, each one of them has adopted an unexpectedly concessionary approach."

Mr. Netanyahu made a campaign promise in 1996 that, were he in charge, Israel "will never descend from the Golan." But a mere two years later, he tried to offer Damascus the entire Golan territory in return for a mere slip of paper. (Had Mr. Netanyahu succeeded then, imagine the consequences today, with Syria aflame and al Qaeda units approaching Israel's borders.) Fortunately, his Cabinet colleagues obstructed him from implementing this folly.

These days, a center-left consensus intones that ending the external threat to Israel means reaching a two-state accord with the Palestinians. (I disagree.) Will Mr. Netanyahu turn to the left, defy his constituency and sign such an accord to win re-election? The established pattern of wayward prime ministers and Mr. Netanyahu's own biography have both caused me since 2009 to worry about such a betrayal of his mandate.

Perhaps we will be spared from learning an answer: Palestinian intransigence is annoying Mr. Kerry and might, yet again, take the diplomatic pressure off Israel.

Daniel Pipes (DanielPipes.org) is president of the Middle East Forum.

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