By Aluf Benn
Sunday, September 5, 2010; B05
He is usually depicted as a hard-liner, a hopeless ideologue burdened by a legacy of hawkish sound bites and shackled to a notoriously conservative coalition. But, contrary to popular wisdom, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is proving to be the most dovish leader that Israel has had in many years, one who is using military force cautiously and seeking, at long last, a diplomatic resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "I came here today to find an historic compromise that will enable both our peoples to live in peace and security and in dignity," he said at last week's Middle East peace summit at the White House. These are words that most Israelis never expected to hear "Bibi" utter.
Indeed, in one of the more intriguing political evolutions in recent memory, Netanyahu is starting to look a lot like another hard-liner who eventually engaged his longtime adversaries: Richard Nixon, on the occasion of his visit to China.
Like Nixon, Netanyahu has pulled off a political comeback, having returned to power a decade after losing a reelection bid. Much as Nixon was a poster boy for anti-communism, Netanyahu has ridden the wave of counterterrorism. Like Nixon, he has fought liberals and peaceniks throughout his career, and has relished the antagonism of a news media that he regards as hostile and left-leaning.
As a diplomat and a talking head on TV, Netanyahu made his fame defending Israel in the court of global public opinion. For years, he fought any two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict predicated on trading land for peace, arguing that territorial concessions by Israel would bring only violence and misery. Time and again, as Israeli withdrawals from occupied territory were followed by suicide bombings and rocket fire from Gaza, the West Bank and Lebanon, he was proved right. Last year, the Israeli public rewarded him by returning him to power.
And that is where the storyline shifts. After reentering the prime minister's office last spring, Bibi changed his tune. The man who had spent his life chanting "No, no, PLO," and explaining why a Palestinian state would mean the end of the Jewish one, has begun singing the old mantra of the Israeli left wing: "Two states for two peoples." The standard-bearer for Israeli conservatism has jumped on the peace bandwagon. As unlikely sights go, it is up there with Nixon shaking Mao Zedong's hand in 1972.
Ten months ago, Netanyahu told me in a phone interview for Haaretz, the liberal Israeli daily where I am a columnist and editor: "I want to promote a peace agreement with the Palestinians. I can bring a deal." I wrote afterward that I believed him, only to receive mocking comments from many readers who called me naive. But I have not changed my mind -- and neither has Netanyahu. Last week's summit in Washington was largely his brainchild: It was he who insisted on direct talks, outmaneuvering Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who had agreed to indirect "proximity talks."
In both his words and his deeds since he took office a year and a half ago, Netanyahu appears to have been reborn as a moderate, level-headed leader. His responses to cross-border attacks from Gaza and Lebanon have been calibrated to avoid escalation. In November, he imposed a 10-month moratorium on Jewish settlement expansion in the West Bank. And despite his deep disagreements with Abbas over big-picture issues, Israeli security and economic cooperation with Abbas's Palestinian Authority are stronger than ever. When Palestinian terrorists struck during the Washington summit, killing four Israeli settlers in the West Bank and wounding two, Netanyahu sounded nothing like the Bibi of old. "I will not let the terrorists block our path to peace," he said.
What caused Netanyahu to rethink his long-held ideology? To be sure, he did not go through a midlife left-wing epiphany any more than Nixon did. Rather, he succumbed to American pressure, and this, too, speaks in his favor. Statecraft requires reading power relationships correctly and acting accordingly.
Past right-wing Israeli leaders went through similar about-faces. Menachem Begin gave the entire Sinai back to Egypt only weeks after he pledged to spend his retirement in an Israeli settlement there. Ariel Sharon demolished the settlements in Gaza shortly after declaring them as important as Tel Aviv. Yitzhak Shamir, the toughest of the breed, put aside his beliefs to attend the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference. All these leaders were said to have "reckoned with reality" -- which, in Israeli political parlance, is a euphemism for "dependence on America."
With no serious domestic challengers, Netanyahu knows that he is the strongest Israeli leader in a generation. Looking outside, however, he sees mostly trouble: His country is ever more isolated from an international community that increasingly rejects Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories, its settlements and its excessive use of force. At the same time, he is deeply alarmed by Iran's quest for nuclear weapons, coupled with what he describes as its effort to "delegitimize" the Jewish state. He sees Israel's sheer existence, not its controversial policies, as the matter at stake.
He therefore wants President Obama to help neutralize the Iranian threat -- and he understands that Obama's price for that help will be Israeli concessions in the West Bank. And so, as Obama toughens his stance toward Iran and expands security cooperation with Israel, Netanyahu softens his tone vis-à-vis the Palestinians.
Nixon put aside his distaste for Chinese communists because he feared the Soviet Union even more. Netanyahu is, in effect, prioritizing the Iranian weapons facility at Natanz above the settlements.
Just how far can this diplomatic quid pro quo take the peace process? Certainly, there are still wide, seemingly unbridgeable gaps between Netanyahu and Abbas on key issues -- including Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees -- and the opponents of a deal are powerful and violent, as last week's attacks showed.
Still, the political constellation supports an Israeli-Palestinian agreement like never before. Both previous attempts at reaching a final deal, in 2000 and 2008, stumbled on lame-duck leadership in Jerusalem and Washington. This is not the case with Netanyahu and Obama today.
The pre-Watergate Nixon, with his hawkish stance and his keen grasp of political realties, pulled off a visit to China that a politician with less serious anti-communist credentials would not have attempted. For similar reasons, Netanyahu may be better positioned to cut a deal on a Palestinian state than any predecessor or likely successor.
After all, the Israeli public loves it when a right-winger performs the left-wing script -- just as the American public did when Nixon visited Mao, rewarding him with a landslide reelection.
Aluf Benn is editor at large at Haaretz.