Voices

Kerry is serious about peace. Is Netanyahu?

December 31, 2013

by Alan Elsner

After nine trips to the region and countless hours of discussions, Secretary of State John Kerry has convinced Israelis across the political spectrum that he’s deadly serious and totally committed to his effort to bring peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

He just hasn’t convinced them — or the Palestinians — that he can succeed.

On a recent visit to Israel during which I had the opportunity to meet with a dozen Knesset members from various parties as well as a broad range of analysts, consultants, academics and former military officials, it became clear that the level of skepticism remains high.

Some doubted whether Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had either the political strength or the political will to make the compromises necessary to reach an agreement. Others felt the same way about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose real strategic goals remain a mystery even to people who know him well. One former minister, who said he must have spent more than 500 hours one-on-one with Netanyahu over the years, told me he felt that he really didn’t know the real Netanyahu at all.

Everyone agrees that Netanyahu, who is Israel’s longest-serving prime minister after the country’s founder, David Ben Gurion, is a consummate political operator.

He managed to emerge from last January’s election, in which his party lost over a quarter of its seats in parliament, still as the undisputed leader of the country — and he remains in the eyes of many the only politician with the stature and experience to serve as prime minister. Right now, there is no viable challenger on the horizon.

Bibi watchers, of whom there are many, spend hours trying to analyze his psyche. Does he respond to pressure — and if so, how much pressure? How much is he influenced by his highly ideological late father? Just as during the Cold War, “Kremlinologists” examined tiny clues in an effort to make sense of the opaque world of the Soviet Union, in Israel “Bibiologists” try to figure out what the prime minister is trying to achieve.

Does he want to go down in history as the man who made bold concessions to try to finally end the conflict with the Palestinians, or is he just playing for time, trying to keep his coalition together and preserve his own place at its head? Will he be a transformational or a transitional leader?

We know that Netanyahu is exceedingly cautious — prone to deliver grand statements and soaring, sometimes bombastic rhetoric but extremely pragmatic and risk-averse in his actions. This can be a good thing. Whereas his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, dragged the country into rash military confrontations in Lebanon and Gaza, Netanyahu’s one use of force last year, code-named Operation “Pillar of Defense,” was carefully calibrated and restrained and did not include ground forces.

But caution can only get a leader so far. There comes a time when a leader must lead. That time is coming for Netanyahu, probably within the first two or three months of 2014.

I, like many people, was struck by the speech delivered by U.S. chief peace envoy Martin Indyk to the J Street conference in September. He evoked the Camp David summit in 2000 when President Clinton tried unsuccessfully to forge a final peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, citing words that Shimon Peres (now Israel’s president) told him after the collapse of the talks.

“Shimon Peres said to me afterwards, ‘You know, history is like a horse that gallops past your window. And the true act of a statesman is to jump from the window onto that galloping horse,’ ” Indyk recalled.

“Ladies and gentlemen, President Obama and Secretary Kerry are going to make sure that that horse gallops past the window of President Mahmoud and Prime Minister Netanyahu. And they will have to make that kind of decision.”

Kerry and his team have studied the history of past negotiations and learned from them. He realizes that the key to gaining

Israeli support lies in addressing their security needs and concerns. Hence the comprehensive plan presented by General John Allen that laid out detailed solutions to all the possible threats a peace agreement might pose. The plan envisaged Israeli troops remaining along the Jordan River for several years to prevent the infiltration of terrorists and militants from the east — a key Netanyahu demand.

After my week of meetings in Israel, I came away with the feeling that some Israeli politicians still don’t fully grasp the magnitude of what Kerry is trying to achieve — and the lengths he is prepared to go to in order to achieve it. Many are still thinking small — in terms of domestic politics and the jockeying for position and tactical advantage inside and outside the ruling coalition.

But Netanyahu surely rises above such petty thoughts. He surely knows that we are approaching a historic turning point. We should pray that he has the courage and wisdom to rise to the moment. n

Alan Elsner is vice president for communications for J Street.

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