Bibi Throws the Dice

Like his predecessor Ariel Sharon, Netanyahu could become a hard-line Israeli prime minister who takes a bold step toward peace. Matt McAllester on the signs he’s ready to make a deal with the Palestinians in Washington.

09.02.10 11:49 PM ET

With face-to-face peace talks under way with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at the State Department in Washington, it is the turn of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who quit Ariel Sharon’s government in anger at the Gaza disengagement plan, to be the hardliner who makes a historic leap of courage.

Back in early 2001, the unthinkable was happening in Israel. Sharon seemed likely to become prime minister. Peace-seeking Israelis despaired. This was a man who, as a young man, had led a commando raid on a Palestinian village named Qibya, killing 69 villagers and ordering his troops to achieve “maximal killing.” A man who had been called a war criminal by many of his countrymen for allegedly facilitating a much larger massacre of Palestinians in Lebanon in 1982. Sharon had been the architect of the divisive settlement movement. He was perhaps the Israeli most hated by the Palestinians—and the Israeli left. His election would mean, surely, the end of any chance for peace in the region.

What happened next stunned the right-wing voters who had rejoiced to see their political godfather finally become prime minister. Sharon pulled Israeli settlers and soldiers out of Gaza. He ordered the dismantling of some outpost settlements in the West Bank. And he seemed to be on the way to further withdrawal from the West Bank when he was incapacitated by a stroke in early 2006. The man sometimes called the “Butcher of Beirut” or the “Bulldozer” had, when finally given the leadership of his country, become a pragmatist.

Modern history throws up some heartening examples of these apparently entrenched villains who turn out to be champions of change. F.W. de Klerk grew up a passionate supporter of apartheid, Mikhail Gorbachev a committed communist, and Gerry Adams a supporter of violent Irish republicanism. Their personal transformations helped change the lives of millions. Netanyahu has his own chance now to go down in history as the man who brought peace to Israel and the Palestinian territories.

There are signs that he intends to take up the challenge.

Netanyahu may finally be ready to subsume his ego and ideology for the sake of his country.

In June of last year, shortly after becoming prime minister, he gave a speech in Israel that suggested he had accepted the demographic inevitability that before too long the lands controlled by Israel will be home to more Arabs than Jews. It is hard to pass your country off as Jewish and democratic if most of the people living under your control are not Jews and most of those people—Arab citizens of Israel excepted—can’t vote in your elections.

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“The truth is that in the area of our homeland, in the heart of our Jewish homeland, now lives a large population of Palestinians,” he said. “We do not want to rule over them. We do not want to run their lives. We do not want to force our flag and our culture on them. In my vision of peace, there are two free peoples living side by side in this small land, with good neighborly relations and mutual respect, each with its flag, anthem, and government, with neither one threatening its neighbor’s security and existence.”

That meant only one thing: the creation of a Palestinian state, something Netanyahu for many years had found impossible to countenance. On Thursday Netanyahu implied that he is prepared to make tough decisions to reach a peace deal.

"True peace, lasting peace, will be achieved only with mutual and painful concessions from both sides,” Netanyahu said. “The people of Israel, and I as their prime minister, are prepared to walk this road and to go a long way in a short time to achieve a genuine peace that will bring our people security, prosperity—and good neighbors.”

There were earlier signs that the bellicose-sounding Netanyahu understood that leaders make compromises while politicians scorn them. He has been prime minister before, from 1996 to 1999, and even though he disliked the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords, he continued to implement them. He even signed two further deals with Yasser Arafat, the Hebron Protocol and the Wye River Memorandum, and lost support from the right for doing so.

Netanyahu also seems to be more concerned with a nuclear Iran’s ability to eradicate the entire country than the limited damage that Palestinian militants’ rockets and occasional shootings and other attacks can inflict on Israelis. He knows that as long as an independent Palestine doesn’t become a version of the Iranian-influenced Hezbollah mini-state in Lebanon, then it really can’t hurt Israel much, so it’s best to get a deal done with the Palestinians and keep Israel’s security efforts focused on a genuine existential threat.

In the past Netanyahu has often come across as strangely immature for a major political figure, like a spoiled child who is too clever and pretty for his own good. But he’s 60 years old now and seems less showy in the job than he did in the late ’90s. He may finally be ready to subsume his ego and ideology for the sake of his country. In so doing, he would make Israel safer, and more prosperous, than it has ever been.

Matt McAllester is a contributing editor at Details magazine. For 13 years, he reported for Newsday, spending much of that time as a foreign correspondent in places such as Kosovo, Israel and the Palestinian Territories, Afghanistan, Iraq, Turkey, Nigeria and Lebanon.