In Israel’s history, hawkish leaders have often ended up advocating tough concessions for the sake of peace. Think Menachem Begin at Camp David, Yitzhak Rabin and the Oslo Accords and Ariel Sharon who at the end of his career found himself mulling a withdrawal from the West Bank.
Add Moshe Dayan and Ezer Weizmann to the list — military heroes both of whom came to see that Israel’s future could only be assured through peace agreements with its neighbors. And let’s not forget President Shimon Peres, who for much of his career was a tough guy, until reality taught him otherwise.
Is it too fanciful to believe that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might add his name to that catalog by signing a far-reaching peace agreement with the Palestinians?
It remains to be seen, but there are some signs that Netanyahu is thinking along those lines. First was his politically courageous decision to agree to the release of more than 100 Palestinian prisoners convicted of violence and terrorism as part of a deal to return to peace talks. Releasing prisoners is never popular in Israel, for understandable reasons, but Netanyahu argued that it was in the nation’s national security interests and pushed it through his center-right cabinet.
It’s also notable that Netanyahu has been speaking about peace with the Palestinians differently in recent weeks than he has in the past, arguing that withdrawing from the West Bank and allowing the establishment of a Palestinian state is the only way to preserve Israel as a Jewish homeland.
“If we go into direct negotiations, it is likely to be very hard but the alternative of a binational state is one we do not want,” he told a Knesset committee recently, appropriating a talking point that has been more generally associated with the political left and the “peace camp” than the ultra-nationalist right.
The distinguished Israeli political scientist Shlomo Avineri has observed that Israeli hawks can be divided into two broad camps: ideologues who put maximum emphasis on Israeli control of territory, particularly if it is identified with the biblical land of Israel, and strategists or pragmatists who are willing to consider withdrawals from territory if they deem them strategically advantageous or necessary.
Netanyahu is probably more of a strategist than an ideologue. As Amotz Asa-El recently wrote in The Jerusalem Post: “Netanyahu indeed shares with the messianic right a lot less than many realize. A secular rationalist, he does not mystify soil and does not see borders as articles of faith.”
Since last January’s election, Netanyahu has been an increasingly lonely figure in his own Likud Party, virtually the only member of its parliamentary faction who still believes in two states. In internal party elections last month, Likud chose hardliners who want to annex most of the West Bank to key leadership positions, spurning the views of their supposed leader.
Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon, an outspoken opponent of the two-state solution, became chairman of the party’s Central Committee while another hardliner, Deputy Foreign Minister Zeev Elkin, took over the Likud bureau which defines party ideology. Days later, Netanyahu abruptly canceled an address to the party convention.
Imagine how it would look in America if a political leader refused to show up at his own party convention.
Sooner or later, if the peace talks go anywhere, Netanyahu is going to face a choice between a party that no longer believes in him and a country, which according to opinion polls, still regards him as its best possible leader.
Netanyahu still has many options. Even as his own party has moved disastrously to the extreme right, the country has moved to the center. Last January’s election altered the balance within the Knesset so that a clear majority now supports a two-state solution. If necessary, Netanyahu could put himself at the head of a broad, pro-peace coalition that would have the votes necessary to approve a peace deal.
Up to now, Netanyahu has been viewed mainly as a wily and intensely practical leader — but not as a visionary or a risk-taker. He talks tough — but tends to be measured in his actions. He maneuvers for short-term advantage and puts off difficult decisions until later. But sooner or later in any politician’s career, there comes a defining moment when history beckons and the time for prevarication runs out.
For Netanyahu, that moment may be coming soon. And what he does may surprise us.
Alan Elsner is vice president for communications for J Street.