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Netanyahu: A pragmatic ideologue

Opinion: The Obama administration may find backing for a two-state solution.

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.