Lessons for Netanyahu

What the prime minister can learn from his predecessor, Yitzhak Shamir.

Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu needs to learn a lesson or two from former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir on how to have a political “backbone.”

The London Times report from Jerusalem on March 26, 2010 headline was “Benyamin Netanyahu humiliated after Barack Obama dumped him for dinner.”  The specter of future rebukes by a contemptuous Obama seems to have curbed Netanyahu’s taste for standing up for Israel’s interests.

None of Shamir’s toughness seems to have rubbed off on Netanyahu, who began his political career as Deputy Chief of Mission at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, while Shamir was Foreign Minister.  Unlike the way Netanyahu has conducted his relationship with President Obama, Shamir stood firm against heavy pressure from President George H. Bush and his Secretary of State James Baker.  On one visit to Jerusalem, Baker demanded that Israel make far reaching concessions to the Palestinians.  Shamir, while clearly boiling inside, issued this cool response: “Mr. Secretary, you can demand what you choose to demand, but this is our country and we will not agree to do anything that will harm our interests and our future even if it is demanded by our best friend.”

Shamir’s principled defiance against Bush and Baker earned him the respect of the U.S. Congress.  Shamir was able to receive $650 million in special assistance and $700 million worth of military hardware from Congress despite President Bush’s objection.

Ironically, Israel’s economic situation is far better today than during Shamir’s term as prime minister.   And, while Israel finds itself with few reliable friends today (though there is a growing relationship with India, China and Russia), it had even fewer friends during 1988-1992.  America, under George H.W. Bush, was the sole super-power and respected as such - overseeing the demise of the Soviet Union and winning a great victory in the Gulf War, which liberated Kuwait.  Obama, on the other hand, is overseeing the breakdown of the U.S. economy, the rise of China, and the loss of prestige worldwide, especially in the Middle East.

According to the people-in-the-know around Netanyahu, it is Ehud Barak, former leader of the Labor Party and current Defense Minister, who has the most influence on the Prime Minister’s decisions.  Barak, who defeated Netanyahu in the 1999 elections, has forged an intimate understanding with Netanyahu.  Barak, who left the Labor Party and formed his own faction called Independence, is the “leftist” stream in Netanyahu’s cabinet, and in many ways, Netanyahu sees Barak as the person who can provide him “cover “  when dealing with the U.S. and other Western governments.

Netanyahu seeks to be accepted by a wide spectrum of Americans, and is doing his best to rid himself of the supposed stigma of “hardliner” and “right-winger.”  In his acceptance of a two-state solution and a Palestinian State in his Bar-Ilan speech (6/11/2009), he articulated: “In my vision of peace, there are two free peoples living side by side in this small land, with good neighborly relations and mutual respect, each with its flag, anthem and government, with neither one threatening its neighbor's security and existence…” Netanyahu’s speech was a concession to Obama, which contradicted the will of his Likud voters.

According to the January 20, 2011 issue of the Jewish Week of San Francisco “Netanyahu and Barak confidants have been dropping broad hints that a new Israeli peace initiative is in the offing, suggesting that this is the part of a Netanyahu-Barak understanding.”

The convulsions in the Arab world, which toppled Egypt’s Mubarak and Tunisia’s Bin Ali, have also created a great deal of tension in Jerusalem.  While some security experts have warned that the new realities in Egypt and the rest of the Arab world do not warrant any additional territorial concessions to the Palestinians, pressure from the Obama administration, as well as from European governments including the friendly German government of Angela Merkel, has been mounting on Netanyahu to come up with a new peace plan that would bring the Palestinian to the negotiating table.

Both Jerusalem and Washington fear that in the absence of a credible and far-reaching Israeli peace initiative, the Palestinians (Mahmud Abbas and his regime) might win a huge majority at the September 2011 U.N. General Assembly meeting for the recognition of a Palestinian State within the 1967 borders.  What Netanyahu has in mind is a long-term interim agreement with the Palestinians that would recognize a Palestinian State within temporary borders.  U.S. envoys sent to Israel by Obama do not believe, however, that the Palestinians would be satisfied with such an arrangement.

According to sources in Netanyahu’s office, the Prime Minister has bought into Barak’s 2000 Camp David Summit concept of a comprehensive deal with the Palestinians that would result in a declaration of “end of conflict” and provide answers to the critical issues at stake such as borders, refugees, Jerusalem, security, etc.  Netanyahu’s plan would offer the Palestinians immediate territorial concessions, specifically, the transfer of West Bank areas currently under Israeli control to Palestinian sovereignty, release of Palestinian prisoners (terrorists), and the easing of movement for Palestinians by removing additional security barriers.  In what Israeli officials call a "phased approach,” the Israeli media have speculated that it might include the removal of some Jewish enclaves.

Netanyahu’s upcoming speech (a likely Bar-Ilan II) that is slated to be delivered within the next few weeks either at a special joint session of the U.S. Congress or at the AIPAC conference scheduled for May, will highlight his new peace initiative and possibly include a renewed freeze on building in the controversial settlements of Judea and Samaria, as a way to appease the Obama administration.  Netanyahu will, however, call for widening construction in Jerusalem, and in the large settlement blocs.

As U.S. and EU leaders increase their pressure on PM Netanyahu to accommodate the Palestinians due to the new circumstances in the Middle East, Netanyahu’s “backbone” is beginning to crumble.  In light of the uncertainties on Israel’s borders with Lebanon and now with Egypt and possibly with Jordan, Israel’s security needs must be factored in considering the very real possibility of a Palestinian enemy next door to its population centers and within missile range of its major airport.  Instead, Netanyahu and his Defense Minister Barak are seeking ways to accommodate the Obama administration and the Europeans by proposing dangerous concessions to the Palestinians.  More than ever, Netanyahu needs to adopt Yitzhak Shamir’s toughness and have the courage to say no to further concessions which would put Israel’s security interests at great risk.