- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 31, 2009

JERUSALEM (AP) - During the election campaign, Benjamin Netanyahu dismissed peace talks with the Palestinians, supported expanding West Bank settlements and warned that concessions only embolden Israel’s enemies.

But preparing to become Israel’s prime minister Tuesday, Netanyahu adopted a more conciliatory tone, reflecting the same pragmatic streak that in the past allowed him to navigate complex domestic and global politics.

He has embraced peace negotiations since being tapped as the country’s leader after the Feb. 10 elections. He also says Israel should not rule Palestinians, although he has remained vague on the details and never said the words “Palestinian state.”

“The government I am about to form will do all it can to achieve a just, long-lasting peace with our neighbors and the entire Arab world,” he said Monday. “Each of our neighbors truly willing to move toward peace will find an outstretched hand.”

While Netanyahu had enough support in Parliament to form a hard-line government, he worked to bring the centrist Labor Party into the ruling coalition and entrusted its leader, Ehud Barak, with Israel’s security as defense minister.

Netanyahu has long presented himself as a leader opposed to territorial withdrawals and not seduced by dreams of peace. He has never openly renounced the idea of controlling the “Greater Land of Israel,” meaning the territory that is now Israel, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

But his behavior as prime minister in the 1990s, and as prime minister-elect since last month, displayed a less ideological bent.

“He believes in the Greater Land of Israel, and if you ask him he’ll never say he does not. But he’ll act in a way that will suggest taking reality into account, and not just ideology,” said Shlomo Avineri, a prominent political scientist at Hebrew University.

Netanyahu has spent time in the U.S. and has two degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, background that plays an important role in his character and could prove key in Israel’s relations with its main ally, the United States.

His experience in America, Avineri said, “gives him the ability not just to schmooze Americans but also to understand the reality in the U.S.”

During a recent visit, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton reiterated Washington’s commitment to the creation of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel _ something Netanyahu has so far refused to explicitly endorse.

But his performance is unlikely to be dramatically different from that of the prime minister he is replacing, centrist Ehud Olmert, Avineri said.

International pressure is likely to prevent Netanyahu from building more in West Bank settlements than Olmert did, the analyst said. And if Olmert could not work out a peace deal with the Palestinians, he added, it will be hard to fault Netanyahu for not succeeding.

The Palestinians are waiting to see what Netanyahu plans to offer, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said.

“We would like to see the program of the Israeli government accept the two-state solution and stop settlement activities,” he said. “We will judge the government by its program.”

Netanyahu’s pre-election message that territorial withdrawals have only brought more violence resonated with Israelis who went to the polls just weeks after the war with Palestinian militants in Gaza who increased rocket attacks after Israel pulled out of the territory in 2005.

Something similar happened in 1996, when Israelis elected Netanyahu prime minister after a wave of Hamas suicide bombings originating from areas Israel had transferred to Palestinian control. Yet as prime minister, Netanyahu met with the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and ceded part of the West Bank city of Hebron.

Netanyahu, who entered politics as a brash young man, is now 59. He comes from a prominent Israeli family: His father, Benzion, is a well-known historian, and his brother Yoni was a war hero who died commanding the daring 1976 hostage rescue in Entebbe, Uganda.

In 1996, importing an American political arsenal of sound bites and attack campaigning, Netanyahu upset the veteran politician Shimon Peres and became Israel’s youngest prime minister. He was driven from office after a term marked by bad relations with the Palestinians, failed peacemaking with Syria, alienated allies, an inability to rein in an unruly Parliament and corruption allegations that didn’t stick.

Whatever his disposition this time, Netanyahu will likely have to expend much of his energy preserving his government _ an unwieldy coalition of ultra-Orthodox parties, a hawkish secular party and Labor. To please all of his new partners and his own Likud Party, he added so many new Cabinet posts that carpenters had to expand the ministers’ table in Parliament.

Reuven Hazan, another political scientist at Hebrew University, said a government so lacking in ideological cohesion “might not last, and probably will not last, the full four years that it should be in power.”

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