Israel's Netanyahu maintains defiance amid criticism over Gaza blockade

By Janine Zacharia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, June 4, 2010; 6:10 AM

JERUSALEM -- When Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu delivered his angry response to a cascade of international condemnation of Israel on Wednesday, he spoke first in Hebrew to a domestic Israeli audience. Choosing to address his home constituency, rather than the broader world, was a sign of his continued willingness to accept international ire as the price of upholding policies that are broadly supported at home.

Defiance has been a signature of Netanyahu's career, and despite the expectations of some commentators that he would be more conciliatory during his second go-round as prime minister, that has not been the case over the 14 months since he returned to power. Even when it has meant publicly feuding with the Obama administration, Netanyahu has seemed to embrace the fight -- a strategy that thus far has paid off for him politically.

The latest showdown, coming this week after Israeli commandos killed nine activists in a melee at sea, has renewed focus on Israel's policy of blockading Gaza as part of a strategy to weaken the Islamist Hamas movement. Despite U.S. pressure on Israel to change course in Gaza, Netanyahu has given no indication he is willing to do so in any fundamental way.

That stance echoes the Israeli strategy last year, when it filibustered U.S. calls for a freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Although Israel and the U.S. ultimately reached an understanding on the issue that required Israeli concessions, the Obama administration was first forced to make an embarrassing retreat from its initial demand for a complete freeze.

Although Israeli politicians have traditionally paid a price at home for tangling with U.S. presidents, Netanyahu has not been damaged politically by his challenges to Obama, who is generally unpopular in Israel.

"If you look at Bibi in the last 15 months, you see one main line that directs him in his international and domestic behavior, which is his political situation in Israel,'' said Yaron Deckel, a political commentator for Israel Television, using Netanyahu's nickname. "You saw it with the Jerusalem crisis with the U.S., when he preferred his coalition to Obama. And now you see it with the international community when he defies it but keeps his public support in Israel.''

With Israel under fire abroad, Netanyahu used his first extended remarks on the flotilla crisis to launch an attack on the world.

"Once again, Israel faces hypocrisy and a biased rush to judgment. I'm afraid this isn't the first time,'' he said.

Without even a faint nod to the international community's concerns about Israel's actions -- which have led to calls for an international inquiry, ambassador recalls and deep damage to relations with Turkey -- Netanyahu insisted Israeli policy toward the Gaza Strip would not change as long as it is controlled by Hamas.

"Israel simply cannot permit the free flow of weapons and war materials to Hamas from the sea," he said. Hamas has close links to the government of Iran, and Netanyahu said the international community "cannot afford an Iranian port in the Mediterranean.''

Still, there were also signs that Netanyahu may be tempering his tough rhetoric with pragmatic steps to help ease this crisis.

By focusing on the need to stop the flow of weapons and war materials to Hamas "from the sea,'' Netanyahu may have been signaling a readiness to allow more freedom of movement and goods across land -- something the United States has insisted on since the flotilla incident.

On Thursday, Netanyahu met at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv with former British prime minister Tony Blair, who mediates economic matters between Israel and the Palestinians on behalf of the United States and other international partners. Netanyahu and Blair explored letting more civilian goods into Gaza, a Western diplomat and an Israeli official said.

Currently, Israel allows in basic foods and other humanitarian items but maintains a cryptic list of civilian, non-security-related goods that Israel categorizes as luxury items, which it claims will only benefit Hamas.

"What we're looking at is we're exploring additional ways to implement our goals, and the goals are first to prevent arms reaching Hamas, to prevent materials that could support the Hamas military machine,'' the Israeli official said on Friday.

Netanyahu has long been regarded, particularly abroad, as a hard-liner who is reluctant to make peace with the Palestinians. But when necessary, he has been willing to make pragmatic, tactical concessions.

When Netanyahu first clashed with the Obama administration last year, he insisted there would be no settlement freeze as a precondition to peace talks with the Palestinians. Then in the fall, he agreed to a 10-month pause in the West Bank.

In March, he publicly said housing construction in East Jerusalem would never be frozen. But then, as tensions with Washington continued to mount, the key committee that approves housing temporarily stopped meeting.

As for the flotilla, Netanyahu has avoided a domestic political crisis amid international scorn because his position reflects the feelings of many Israelis, who think a blockade is the right thing to do to prevent Hamas from obtaining long-range weapons and firing them at Israel.

Netanyahu "is a reflection of the authenticity of fears and suspicions'' of Israelis, said Aaron David Miller, a longtime State Department negotiator.

Netanyahu has also learned from mistakes he made in his first term as prime minister, in the late 1990s. He then often made decisions alone and alienated those close to him. Now he has made seven ministers part of every key decision. One of them is his erstwhile political opponent, Defense Minister Ehud Barak. By keeping his rivals close, he has neutralized the criticism when an operation -- such as the flotilla raid -- goes badly.

Netanyahu isn't just playing smart politics, however. Although he agreed to the idea of talks geared toward a two-state solution with the Palestinians last year, Netanyahu has told advisers he does not think the Palestinians are ready for a true peace with Israel. He sees Barak's unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 and former prime minister Ariel Sharon's withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, which have left Israel vulnerable to Hezbollah and Hamas rocket fire, as cautionary tales not to be repeated.

Netanyahu's policy-making ability is hampered, Miller said, by his internal conflict between the "tough-talking Likud politician and the tough, smart, pragmatic statesman.''

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