Is There a New Netanyahu?

From Rabin to Livni, Israeli hawks have a history of mellowing with age. Some think Bibi has, too.

How to describe an Israeli nationalist and hawkish public figure who used to be a staunch opponent of the idea of an independent Palestinian state and ended up experiencing an intellectual epiphany that transformed him or her into an advocate of Palestinian independence? Some Israeli political analysts employ the term "Rabinization," after the late prime minister. During the first Palestinian Intifada, Rabin called for "breaking the bones" of the young Arab stone throwers. Later, he’d win the Nobel Peace Prize—and be assassinated—for presiding over the Israeli-Palestinian Oslo Process. Rabinization may have affected more than a few Likud leaders. Hence, the foreign policy shape-shifting of former Greater Israel proponents, including Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni, who late in their political life replaced an earlier commitment to a radical Zionist agenda with a willingness to work for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state side by side with Israel.

This metamorphosis from supporters of Jewish settlements in the West Bank into negotiators of a settlement with the Palestinians that would include an Israeli withdrawal from those territories didn’t only reflect pragmatic considerations in response to international pressure. It was also a recognition that the survival of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state would require relinquishing Israeli control over the Arabs living in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

It's thus not surprising that Olmert and Livni, who were groomed by Likud founder Menachem Begin as members of the next generation of leaders of a political party that had placed the preservation of Greater Israel at the center of its platform, today sound more like veteran activists in Israel's left-leaning Peace Now movement.

Could Benjamin Netanyahu be Rabinized, too? This has been on the minds of members of Israel's political class since his June 2009 Bar Ilan address, in which he expressed support for the creation of an independent Palestinian state. Or was it nothing more than an exercise in public relations, aimed at placating a newly inaugurated American president who seemed intent on reviving the dormant Palestinian-Israeli peace process?

During the first term of the Obama presidency, which coincided with the establishment of a right-wing Likud-led coalition headed by Netanyahu, the conventional wisdom in Jerusalem was that Bibi didn't really change. It was said that Netanyahu was only trying to buy time, hoping that he could employ the kind of moderate rhetoric he used in Bar Ilan while pursuing annexationist policies. That would have allowed him to "survive Obama" in the next four years, until the Republicans and their friendly neoconservative advisers return to the White House, and/or a military confrontation with Iran forced the Palestinian issue onto the policy backburner.

But listening to some members of Israel's foreign-policy community in the same week that a new series of American-mediated talks were launched in Washington, one gets the impression that the conventional wisdom about Bibi may be changing. He is finally seeing the light, say some Israelis. Yossi Beilin, one of the former Labor leaders who was the driving force behind the Oslo Process and the ensuing Geneva Initiative, seems quite bullish about Bibi's decision to support the latest American diplomatic initiative and his agreement to release more than one hundred Palestinian terrorists as part of a deal to restart the talks. He describes Bibi's moves as a "dramatic change of 180 degrees" in Netanyahu's thinking on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As Beilin and and a few Israeli peace activists see it, Netanyahu has indeed been Rabinized and seems ready to pursue the policies that he outlined in his Bar Ilan speech. Mirror imaging these hopes are the fears shared by many members of the settlement movement and the Greater Israel coalition, who are beginning to suspect that Bibi has abandoned their cause.

But in reality, outside the wishful thinking of the Israeli left and the nightmare scenarios of the settlers, Netanyahu's government rejected all major American and Palestinian demands: to conduct the negotiations based on the 1967 lines; to declare a freeze in the building of new Jewish settlements; to discuss the issue of the Palestinian "right of return" or to consider the partition of Jerusalem. The release of the Palestinians held in Israeli jails, some under life sentences, may have been an important gesture on the part of Netanyahu. But then Bibi had agreed to take similar steps in the past, including in exchange for the release of Gilad Shalit. The latest prisoner release thus doesn't reflect a dramatic change in Netanyahu's thinking. Indeed, Netanyahu's recent moves are largely tactical in nature and don’t point to a major transformation of his grand strategy, which still merely allows that Israel might agree to a Bantustan-like Palestinian autonomy in some areas of the West Bank.