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Bibi's comeback

Middle East | Is the new Israeli prime minister a more seasoned version of his former self?

Issue: "Geo-gizmos," April 25, 2009

Sworn in as Israeli Prime Minister for the second time at the end of March, Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu is known for his opposition to land-for-peace deals-a key component of U.S.-led negotiations. And his appointment of "ultra-nationalist" Avigdor Lieberman as Israeli Foreign Minister raised more than a few eyebrows: Lieberman last October told Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to "go to hell" and campaigned to redraw Israeli borders to exclude Arab citizens.

But Netanyahu's track record and that of his party show movement from right to center, and his right-wing Likud party has made difficult concessions. Already Netanyahu, who previously headed Israel's government in 1996-1999, shows signs of conciliation, promising to work toward Palestinian autonomy (but still avoiding the word statehood). Critics and supporters alike are left to wonder if we are dealing with the old or the new-and perhaps more seasoned-Netanyahu.

While some are breathing a collective sigh of relief over his retreat from hard-line rhetoric, others are concerned that he will abandon all that he has promised-namely ending Hamas control of Gaza and keeping the Golan Heights. Land-for-peace has brought nothing but more violence, they say, and Netanyahu is one of the few politicians who sees this conflict for what it is.

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"We're always willing to negotiate and compromise. We believe as a matter of faith that having half a loaf is better than no loaf, and we simply assume everybody else looks at the world the same way. And they do not," Foundation for the Defense of Democracies President Clifford May said. "Hamas would rather fight for another 100 years and sacrifice 10 generations or more than compromise and accept what they believe to be theologically unacceptable, which is infidels ruling on land that has been given from Allah to the Muslims."

The Middle East Forum's Daniel Pipes is also opposed to land-for-peace propositions and told me that he believes peace will only come when the Arabs learn to accept Israel. "Once that happens, all sorts of deals can follow," Pipes said. Despite a philosophical alignment with Netanyahu, Pipes was so disappointed by his first term, he said, that he favored his Labor opponent during the 1999 elections, noting that while Netanyahu opposed the Oslo accords, he relinquished more control to the Palestinian Authority in the Wye and Hebron accords.

Jews in the United States are divided in their opinions of Netanyahu, according to Hillel Fradkin, founder of the Hudson Institute's Center on Islam, Democracy and the Future of the Muslim World. Some believe settlements in the West Bank are the primary obstacle to peace and disagree with Bibi's expansionist policies. Others fear where Israel's centrist parties have taken them and, like Israeli Jews, are disillusioned: "The election of Netanyahu as well as the rise of Lieberman's party is a reflection of the fact that the Israeli public has been through almost 16 years of the peace process and has very little to show for it."

Netanyahu became the country's youngest leader when he was first elected as prime minister in 1996, but his term was marred by an unruly Knesset, scandal, and crushed attempts at a Syrian peace deal. His party tapped him to cobble a coalition government after February elections put it in the most favorable position to pull together a majority. Although he could have formed a coalition with Israel's many ultra-nationalist and religious parties, Bibi wanted a more moderate government and, to the ire of his own party, gave away many key cabinet positions to Israel's center-left Labor and created new cabinet posts-even calling in a team of carpenters to work overnight to expand the cabinet table.

Now the 59-year-old leader faces immense pressure from the Obama administration to make progress. "It's going to be a challenging period. We in the U.S. have moved to the left, and in Israel they've moved somewhat to the right," May said.

Given the chaotic state of affairs in Gaza and the West Bank, productive negotiations are unlikely no matter who is at the helm in Israel. That's why some leaders are setting their sights on an Israeli-Syrian peace deal. Handing over the much-contested Golan Heights to the Syrians-a concession Bibi almost made during his first term despite campaign promises against such withdrawals-could set a precedent for peace in the tumultuous region.

May warns that Israel would be ill-advised to swap land for what he says are likely to be "empty promises" from Syria to cut ties with terrorists, and Pipes is concerned that Bibi may actually make such concessions to alleviate some of the pressure on the Palestinian front.

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