Sunday Sep 05, 2010

In the Trenches: Is Netanyahu a 'Master Manipulator'?

Posted by David Harris
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The New York Times thinks so.

In a recent lead editorial entitled "President Abbas and Peace Talks," ostensibly about the Palestinian leader, the paper couldn't resist the temptation to take a swipe - or two or three - at Netanyahu. It could barely contain its rage, suspicion and doubt about the Israeli prime minister. But, then again, that's par for the course.

Go figure.

Since taking office, Netanyahu has moved his Likud Party squarely into the two-state camp. That's no mean feat. The party fiercely resisted the idea since its inception. Indeed, previous Likud leaders Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert had to leave in order to stake out more centrist positions. Netanyahu has taken the party - at least important segments of it - with him in this historic turnaround both for him and his faction.

He has also removed dozens of security checkpoints on the West Bank - permitting freer movement of people and goods - and helped encourage the dramatic growth spurt in the Palestinian economy.

He did what no predecessor ever had, agreeing to a temporary freeze on all new construction in West Bank Jewish settlements. Done at the behest of President Obama, this was intended as a goodwill gesture to help restart peace talks with the Palestinians. The domestic political price that had to be paid didn't stop Netanyahu.

Meanwhile, he is juggling some staggering challenges.

First, when he assumed office in 2009, he faced a new US administration that sent decidedly mixed signals about its attitude toward Israel. Indeed, many speculated that an early goal was to rejigger the Israeli government, perhaps removing Netanyahu in the process. Given the outsized role of America in Israel's life, the bilateral issue alone kept Netanyahu rather busy.

Second, thanks to Israel's outdated electoral laws, he has an awkward, time-consuming coalition that seeks to pull him in various, often contradictory, directions. While a different government make-up may be desirable - that has eluded Netanyahu to date.

Third, Iran is moving relentlessly toward the nuclear goal line, posing an unprecedented threat to Israel's security. Any Israeli leader would be equally preoccupied with this menace and how to deal with it.

Fourth, Iran's proxies, Hamas and Hizbullah, are gaining in military strength. Both sit on Israel's borders, and both are preparing themselves for new rounds of conflict with Israel, which, in their minds, has no right to exist. Hamas, in fact, has already stepped up deadly acts of terror in response to the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

And fifth, Syria is flexing its muscles once again, seeking advanced Russian weaponry and casting a long shadow on neighboring Lebanon's affairs.

Moreover, Netanyahu presides over a country that has grown more skeptical of peace prospects over the past decade. That does not suggest any decline in the yearning for peace, only greater doubt that it can be achieved.

Three events in particular explain this attitudinal change.

There was the dramatic offer by Prime Minister Ehud Barak, in 2000, with the full support of President Bill Clinton, for a two-state settlement. The result? A Palestinian "intifada" that killed more than one thousand Israelis. In proportional terms, that would be the equivalent of 40,000 American fatalities.

There was the Israeli withdrawal from the security zone in southern Lebanon, also in 2000. The result? Hizbullah filled the vacuum, brought weaponry closer to the border and triggered the 2006 war.

Then there was the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, giving local residents the first chance in their history to govern themselves. The result? Hamas took over, kicked out the Palestinian Authority in a bloody civil war, smuggled in heavy weapons and fired thousands of missiles and mortars at Israel.

All this said, Netanyahu is serious about the direct peace talks launched a few days ago in Washington.

If the Times doesn't think so, the paper may be the victim of its own journalistic blinders. It seems unwilling - or unable - to recognize that a political leader like Netanyahu can prove a dynamic, not a static, figure.

But then again, the paper - and many others as well - were slow to see how Ariel Sharon changed. Today, he's viewed as a practically heroic figure for having confronted Israeli settlers in Gaza - the very settlers he encouraged to move there in the first place - and ordering the full withdrawal of Israeli soldiers and settlers from Gaza. Indeed, he had to create a new political party to carry out this policy.

Go back and read how Sharon was repeatedly derided as a "warmonger," "bulldozer," "hard-liner," and "right-wing extremist" after he took office as prime minister in 2001 - even as the changes in his outlook became noticeable to anyone who cared to look.

Too many editorial boards, ivory towers and foreign ministries, however, were too invested in the image of the "old" Sharon to grasp the changes before their very eyes. And the same principal applied to the Obama administration when confronted, in March 2009, with the reality of Netanyahu as Israel's prime minister. He was viewed - and found wanting - through the prism of his first term as Israel's leader a decade earlier.

Only recently has the administration come to realize that not only is Netanyahu's  position in Israel quite secure, but also that he has matured as a leader, charted a centrist path and resolved - whatever the odds of success - to seek a peace accord with the Palestinian Authority.

No less importantly, if any Israeli leader can achieve an agreement today, Netanyahu is a pretty good bet for the role.

Given the Israeli public's understandable skepticism about the chances for genuine peace with the Palestinians, it takes someone like Netanyahu - with his distinguished military background, hawkish views on security, and as he likes to put it, lack of naiveté about the region - to give it a try. And if progress in the talks should entail further Israeli sacrifices, the deal will need to be sold to the Israeli people, another job tailor-made for him.

"The Jewish people is no stranger in our homeland, the land of our forefathers," Netanyahu said in Washington last week. "But we recognize that another people share this land with us. And I came here today to find a historic compromise that will enable both peoples to live in peace, security and dignity."

The words of a "master manipulator"?

Hardly.

The only manipulators here, sad to say, are those editorial writers at the Times who came up with the phrase.

 
 
 
 
 
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1  |   Chaim - Israel, Sunday Sep 05, 2010
The author is wrong to cast Bibi's betrayal of Likud values as an achievement. Likud was established by the late great Zev Jabotinski as a patriotic vehemently right wing party. It's goal is to massively settle and claim all of Israel, including Judea and Samaria.This is what Israel voted for when it elected a Likud lead right wing coalition. Bibi's acceptance of the disastrous Two State Final Solution, which would destroy Israel within a decade, is no achievement. It is a complete betrayal of everything Likud stands for and everything Israel voted for. Likud must cast Bibi out.
2  |   Reuven Ben-Daniel, Israel, Sunday Sep 05, 2010
Today, he's viewed as a practically heroic figure for having confronted Israeli settlers in Gaza - Not true, he is viewed as a despicable scoundrel who was on the verge of being indicted.., and wanted to divert attention from himself. We are still living with the aftermath of the disastrous expulsion of Jews from their homes Never again.
3  |   Gordon, USA, Sunday Sep 05, 2010
Your own arguments prove that he IS a master manipulator. All the "good things", Bibi does he does for his political gain. He tries to make it look like he is really trying for peace so when the peace talks fail because the Palestinians won't accept you stealing all their land, refusing them them the right of a real state if on the zero chance you ever did let Palestine exist, refusing to give in to any of their demands while demanding they accept all of your demands, and treating Israeli Arabs as third class citizens and Palestine as a third class state, he can claim all the glory for trying
4  |   JW, Sunday Sep 05, 2010
The NY Times is in a bind. Israel-bashing is now a requirement to be taken seriously by the 'progressive' culturati, of which the NY Times is a standard bearer. At the same time though, the Times is an American mainstream paper. So it certainly doesn't want to drift into pure antisemitism, as a European paper would have less qualms doing, with sordid tales of Jewish Lobby conspiracies or selling Arab body parts. So the solution is to make Netanyahu it's buggaboo, with editorials supplemented by columnists Roger Cohen and Nicholas Kristof. Israel is okay. Only its elected govt is no good.
5  |   JG Caesarea, Sunday Sep 05, 2010
This past Saturday, The New York Times editorial board continued its rant: "We have long been skeptical that Mr. Netanyahu really wants a [peace] deal." Far more worrisome, however, is the recent posting of virulent anti-Semitic readers' comments by this newspaper, notwithstanding its purported policy that "Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are . . . not abusive." Unfortunately, The New York Times appears to have determined that anti-Semitism is not abusive, and Jews are currently the only minority that can be targeted online in this newspaper's website.
6  |   Richard Mueller Wayne nj, Monday Sep 06, 2010
David, I'll tell you the same thing I told Dershowitz in an email last week. Stop spending all of your time defending Israel and start expending energy to become an active force involved in the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. All the two of you have done is repeat the same defensive arguments over and over again.
7  |   Richard Mueller Wayne NJ, Monday Sep 06, 2010
And by the way, you, Dershowitz, Glick and numerous others should try mounting an argument without the words "deligitimization" and "proxy".
8  |   Drew, NY, Monday Sep 06, 2010
"If the Times doesn't think so, the paper may be the victim of its own journalistic blinders" The paper has become a voice for anti semitism with most of its Jewish writers on the extreme left that advocate for the destruction of Israel (covertly). These people are the ones supporting the likes of J-Street. So for me, whatever the NY Times says is no surprise and holds no water. I, like most Americans, no longer read the NY Times or even make reference to them. They are finished, kaput.
9  |   Isaac.....Canada, Monday Sep 06, 2010
David Harris jumps all over the place and makes a mish-mash of the article. Answer your own question clearly. We know about Ariel Sharon. That is history. You are avoiding the dynamics of Israeli public opinion. What Netanyahu really did is that he set a successful trap for Obama, who along with Clinton, fell right into it. That's why this conference was afailure. If meetings were to be held every two weeks, why all the hype about the so-called summit in Washington? Abbas thinks he can outwink Bibi but he looked like a clown and Obama decided to avoid further embarassment. Well done, Bibi !!
10  |   Jack Fort Collins, CO, Monday Sep 06, 2010
Why do these writers never mention international law? Why is Israel an exception? Why is every other nation and national group held to the standard of international law except Israel? Why is the question not requiring Israel to end the occupation, as international law requires, but rather , how much of what it has illegally stolen will Israel be required to return to the rightful owners?
11  |   Renny, Monday Sep 06, 2010
If Mr. Nethanyahu was really serious in making peace he would immediately have asked Kadima and Labout to form a government showing that he was headed toward trying to find a solution. Instead he claimed the right had won the elctions and joined with the radical right, thus putting a stop to any real plans for peace. This is the time for all parties to work together, forget their party alliances and find a solution. But it seems that politicians can only see their side of things and not what the country needs.. If only politicians could forget their EGO
12  |   Zachary Mark, Monday Sep 06, 2010
Excellent post. As to the mantle of "master manipulator," that phrase truly applies to the Syrian, Turkish and Iranian leadership if the NY Times would take its blinders off.
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In the Trenches David Harris, Executive Director, American Jewish Committee (AJC), and Senior Associate, St. Antony's College, Oxford University, assesses challenges to Jewish security worldwide.

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Recent Comments

Zachary Mark: Excellent post. As to the mantle of "master manipulator," that phrase truly applies to the Syrian, Turkish and Iranian leadership if the NY Times would take its blinders off.
Renny: If Mr. Nethanyahu was really serious in making peace he would immediately have asked Kadima and Labout to form a government showing that he was headed toward trying to find a solution. Instead he claimed the right had won the elctions and joined with the radical right, thus putting a stop to any real plans for peace. This is the time for all parties to work together, forget their party alliances and find a solution. But it seems that politicians can only see their side of things and not what the country needs.. If only politicians could forget their EGO
Jack Fort Collins, CO: Why do these writers never mention international law? Why is Israel an exception? Why is every other nation and national group held to the standard of international law except Israel? Why is the question not requiring Israel to end the occupation, as international law requires, but rather , how much of what it has illegally stolen will Israel be required to return to the rightful owners?