Netanyahu: A pragmatic ideologue

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has begun what, hopefully, will be a concerted effort on the part of the Obama administration to come to grips with that old horror, the Israel-Palestine problem.

The outgoing Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, a former Likud Party man who changed his mind about a Greater Israel, firmly believes in a two-state solution. The man who stands the best chance of succeeding him, Binyamin Netanyahu, does not. If America is committed to a two-state solution, this is going to make the task of President Obama’s special envoy, George Mitchell, difficult to say the least.

Recently, The Economist poised the question “whether Mr. Netanyahu, who was prime minister from 1996 to 1999, is ultimately a pragmatist or at heart still an ideologue of the old school … wedded to the idea of a Greater Israel that would take in the West Bank and stretch down to the Jordan River.” In my view he is both: a pragmatic ideologue.

Netanyahu tried hard to bring dovish parties into a ruling coalition, but so far they have said no, mostly on the grounds that Netanyahu won’t commit to a two-state solution. This leaves a coalition of hawkish right-wing parties as the most probable outcome.

I remember Netanyahu telling me with some passion, right after the Oslo Accords had been announced in 1993, that giving up territory in the West Bank was the wrong way to go, and that making peace with Syria should be explored instead. But peace with Syria means giving up the Golan Heights, and press accounts of Netanyahu’s recent visit to the heights with his son to plant a tree does not bode well for territorial concessions.

Planting a tree has great symbolism in Israel, and it doesn’t include giving the tree to Syria.

A pragmatic ideologue is someone who wants to maintain the Israeli occupation of the West Bank without causing a confrontation with the United States. A coalition including the dovish parties would have given Netanyahu cover, because it’s easier to drag your feet leading a government of national unity. But barring that, the best way for a pragmatic ideologue to stall is to embrace a peace process and string it out forever. So look for an accommodating Netanyahu who never actually reaches an accommodation.

In the past, Israeli leaders have been able to turn to Congress to protect them against pressure from whatever American administration is in power at the time. But, according to Gershom Gorenberg, writing in the Israeli daily Haaretz, that may be changing. Congressional attitudes, he writes, “have begun to shift. The conservative line of AIPAC, the veteran pro-Israel lobby, is no longer the only understanding of how to support Israel.” Pro-Israeli congressmen now feel free to take a more compromising view toward the Palestinians without being considered anti-Israel.

If he is right, this could give the Obama administration cover from the pro-Israel lobby if it wants to put some pressure on Netanyahu down the road. And it will take American pressure to get Israel to give up expanding settlements on the West Bank, a process that, if left unchecked, will make a two–state solution impossible.

The stakes are very high, for although solving the Palestinian problem will not stop terrorism against the West, it will take away a very potent recruiting tool for terrorists. It has always been hard for Muslims to understand why the United States will invade Muslims countries, but do nothing about a long-standing occupation of an Arab people by Israel contrary to UN resolutions.

Netanyahu will justifiably point to the disarray in the Palestinian camp, to good effect. The split between Hamas and Fatah cripples the Palestinian side. The Obama administration may find it has to deal with Hamas whether or not Hamas is ready to recognize Israel’s right to exist just because Hamas is there and can’t just be made invisible.

On one level, the prospects for a two-state solution have never looked more dismal. But taking a longer view, there has been a huge generational shift.

When I lived in Israel 30 years ago, no Arab country recognized Israel’s right to exist, and they could not even say the name Israel, calling it the “Zionist entity.” Today, two Arab countries have embassies in Israel, and all the rest have offered normal relations in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal to 1967 lines.

In Israel most people have given up dreams for a Greater Israel from the Jordan River to the sea and would accept a two-state solution if security could be guaranteed.

On the Palestinian side, Yasser Arafat’s historic acceptance of a two-state solution still holds for most Palestinians, even though Hamas won’t go along.

So despite everything there is some maneuver room for hope, and it would be too dangerous for the Obama administration not to try.

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