WATCHING BIBI CLOSELY DURING PEACE TALKS

By ALAN ELSNER

In Israel’s history, hawkish leaders have often ended up advocating tough concessions for the sake of peace. Think Menachem Begin at Camp David, Yitzhak Rabin and the Oslo Accords and Ariel Sharon who at the end of his career found himself mulling a withdrawal from the West Bank.

Add Moshe Dayan and Ezer Weizmann to the list — military heroes both of whom came to see that Israel’s future could only be assured through peace agreements with its neighbors. And let’s not forget President Shimon Peres, who for much of his career was a tough guy, until reality taught him otherwise.

Is it too fanciful to believe that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might add his name to that catalog by signing a far-reaching peace agreement with the Palestinians?

It remains to be seen, but there are some signs that Netanyahu is thinking along those lines. First was his politically courageous decision to agree to the release of more than 100 Palestinian prisoners convicted of violence and terrorism as part of a deal to return to peace talks. Releasing prisoners is never popular in Israel, for understandable reasons, but Netanyahu argued that it was in the nation’s national security interests and pushed it through his center-right cabinet.

It’s also notable that Netanyahu has been speaking about peace with the Palestinians differently in recent weeks than he has in the past, arguing that withdrawing from the West Bank and allowing the establishment of a Palestinian state is the only way to preserve Israel as a Jewish homeland.

“If we go into direct negotiations, it is likely to be very hard but the alternative of a binational state is one we do not want,” he told a Knesset committee recently, appropriating a talking point that has been more generally associated with the political left and the “peace camp” than the ultra-nationalist right.

The distinguished Israeli political scientist Shlomo Avineri has observed that Israeli hawks can be divided into two broad camps: ideologues who put maximum emphasis on Israeli control of territory, particularly if it is identified with the biblical land of Israel, and strategists or pragmatists who are willing to consider withdrawals from territory if they deem them strategically advantageous or necessary.

Netanyahu is probably more of a strategist than an ideologue. As Amotz Asa-El recently wrote in The Jerusalem Post: “Netanyahu indeed shares with the messianic right a lot less than many realize. A secular rationalist, he does not mystify soil and does not see borders as articles of faith.”

Since last January’s election, Netanyahu has been an increasingly lonely figure in his own Likud Party, virtually the only member of its parliamentary faction who still believes in two states. In internal party elections last month, Likud chose hardliners who want to annex most of the West Bank to key leadership positions, spurning the views of their supposed leader.

Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon, an outspoken opponent of the two-state solution, became chairman of the party’s Central Committee while another hardliner, Deputy Foreign Minister Zeev Elkin, took over the Likud bureau which defines party ideology. Days later, Netanyahu abruptly canceled an address to the party convention.

Imagine how it would look in America if a political leader refused to show up at his own party convention.

Sooner or later, if the peace talks go anywhere, Netanyahu is going to face a choice between a party that no longer believes in him and a country, which according to opinion polls, still regards him as its best possible leader.

Netanyahu still has many options. Even as his own party has moved disastrously to the extreme right, the country has moved to the center. Last January’s election altered the balance within the Knesset so that a clear majority now supports a two-state solution. If necessary, Netanyahu could put himself at the head of a broad, pro-peace coalition that would have the votes necessary to approve a peace deal.

Up to now, Netanyahu has been viewed mainly as a wily and intensely practical leader — but not as a visionary or a risk-taker. He talks tough — but tends to be measured in his actions. He maneuvers for short-term advantage and puts off difficult decisions until later. But sooner or later in any politician’s career, there comes a defining moment when history beckons and the time for prevarication runs out.

For Netanyahu, that moment may be coming soon. And what he does may surprise us.

Alan Elsner is vice president for communications for J Street.

 

WATCH: BIBI TELLS AIPAC IRAN NEGOTIATES TO WASTE TIME

They aren’t serious about negotiating. That’s Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s message to AIPAC about Iran. Essentially saying that when Iran talks about negotiating about its nuclear weapons aspirations, it’s really just a delaying tactic.

Netanyahu suggested that the time is fast approaching when Iran will cross that imaginary line that will force action against the country. But, he said, that time has not yet arrived

BIBI: I’LL DISCUSS SECURITY ISSUES WITH OBAMA

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says three security issues will take top priority during his meetings with President Obama on his visit, expected to begin on March 20.

“We are in the midst of preparations for the U.S. president’s visit, which will center around three major issues,” Netanyahu said. “The first item is Iran’s advancement toward obtaining a nuclear weapon. Unfortunately, their progress continues and Iran has even accelerated their nuclear activities as of late. The second topic will be the Syrian government’s collapse. Finally, we will discuss reigniting the peace process with the Palestinians. During Obama’s scheduled visit, we will discuss the issues that play the most important role in maintaining Israel’s security and future.”

Obama’s Israel trip is scheduled to last 48 hours, including his stop in Ramallah. Obama is slated to visit President Shimon Peres’s Jerusalem residence, the prime minister’s residence and the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum. It has not yet been determined where the U.S. president will make a speech, though he has requested to speak to citizens, not the Knesset.

Meanwhile, dozens of activists who support the release of Jonathan Pollard, who is serving a life sentence in the U.S. for delivering classified information to Israel, demonstrated outside the Netanyahu’s residence in Jerusalem on Sunday while Peres was hosting a number of U.S. senators. Peres is expected to raise the issue of releasing Pollard with Obama while he is visiting. Peres recently met with Pollard’s wife, Esther, and also with members of the Justice for Pollard Committee. He pledged to work for Pollard’s release.

“I am asking the president and prime minister to work with Obama to save my husband,” Esther Pollard said. “After 28 years in prison, the tragedy must stop before there won’t be anything left to save.”

 

BIBI: AN INDULGED IRAN WILL GET NUKES JUST LIKE N KOREA

By ISRAEL TODAY

JERUSALEM – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday warned that if the West takes the same flawed approach as it did with North Korean in dealing with Iran’s defiant nuclear program, then the Islamic Republic will, like North Korea, invariably manage to attain atomic weapons.

The warning comes less than a week after officials with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) once again failed to reach a deal with Iran that would allow them to inspect suspect nuclear facilities. This game of cat and mouse has been going on for over a decade, and is the same kind of failed diplomatic effort that allowed North Korea to go nuclear nearly unmolested.

The only viable approach to deterring Iran, Netanyahu told a meeting of the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors, is to couple sanctions with “a robust, credible military threat.”

The one country that could realistically make such a threat, the United States, appears to be going in the opposite direction. US President Barack Obama just appointed to the positions of Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense two men who have been outspoken in their opposition to using military force against Iran.

Netanyahu said that when Obama visits Israel next month, he will look to remind the American leader that “Iran does not conceal its desire to destroy the Jewish state and threaten the rest of the world.”

WATCH: BIBI SAYS IT’S TIME TO THREATEN MILITARY ACTION AGAINST IRAN

In an address to American Jewish leaders in Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has warned that Iran’s newly developed centrifuges could shorten by a third the time needed for Tehran to produce a nuclear weapon. Netanyahu reiterated calls for the West to mount a credible military threat to halt Iran’s uranium enrichment program if increased sanctions and diplomatic pressure continue to fail.

NETANYAHU COALITION EFFORTS HIT SNAG

By ISRAEL TODAY

JERUSALEM – When the final results of Israel’s recent election were revealed, it was widely assumed that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would rather easily forge a majority coalition with Yair Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid party, which surprised everyone by becoming the Knesset’s second largest faction.

But coalition talks, which began this week, aren’t going as well as hoped, and senior officials in Netanyahu’s Likud Party are becoming disillusioned about the chances of successfully forming a government with Lapid.

Likud officials have described Lapid, as former popular news anchor, as “arrogant,” and said he had made coalition demands that far outweighed the importance of his party’s 19 mandates.

Lapid responded to the tension by announcing that he has no problem going into the opposition, but warned that would result in the toppling of Netanyahu’s government and his replacement as prime minister with Lapid himself. The statement only served to further infuriate Likud members.

The other top coalition option for Netanyahu is to form a government with the right-wing Jewish Home party. However, Jewish Home only has 12 seats, so that means Netanyahu would also need to include the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, which brings with it another 11 mandates.

The problem is that Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennett has gotten himself into a mud-slinging match with Shas. Bennett has come out in favor of Lapid’s position that the Orthodox sector be made to serve in the army like everyone else, a policy Shas vehemently rejects.

There are also rumors that Yesh Atid and Jewish Home are mulling an alliance under which they will either enter the coalition together, or not at all. Officials from both parties insisted such rumors were exaggerated.

NETANYAHU’S CHALLENGES FOLLOWING POOR SHOWING

By ISRAEL TODAY

JERUSALEM – Israel’s election is over, and the final tally is more or less known. Now starts the real struggle over forging a stable governing coalition, and with the relatively poor showing by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanayhu’s Likud Party, that’s going to be no easy task.

In the previous Knesset, Likud had 27 seats and allied right-wing party Israel Beiteinu had another 15. The two parties decided to merge for the current election, but the scheme didn’t pay off. Early polls predicted the combined Likud-Beiteinu would take 45 seats, but exit polls on Wednesday showed it had won just 31 mandates.

On top of that, the right-wing Jewish Home and the Orthodox Shas parties were less successful than predicted, winning just 11 seats apiece. That means the religious-right of the Israeli political spectrum will control just 60 out of 120 seats in the 19th Knesset, and Netanyahu will be unable to form a stable right-wing coalition.

The easiest option for Netanyahu will be to form a coalition with Jewish Home, a natural partner, and the surprise winner in this election, the centrist Yesh Atid party of former news anchor Yair Lapid, which became the second largest Knesset faction with 19 seats.

A Likud-Jewish Home-Yesh Atid coalition would have at least 61 seats when the final results are in, and any smaller parties added to the list would only bolster the government’s stability.

Lapid has signaled his readiness to join a Netanyahu government. But, Yesh Atid is against continued government payouts to the Orthodox sector, which doesn’t pay taxes or serve in the army, and therefore would be unlikely to sit in a coalition with Shas.

Netanyahu can form a stable government without Shas, but doing so would likely result in the Orthodox party doing all it could to help the left-wing factions stymie and ultimately bring down the new government.

Netanyahu would prefer to form as broad a coalition as possible, but Labor Party leader Shelley Yechimovich previously insisted that she would not sit in a unity government.

Hours after the polls closed on Tuesday, Yechimovich stated that there was still a very good chance of preventing Netanyahu from becoming the next prime minister, and she may be right.

If Lapid can be convinced to not join Netanyahu, that would leave the prime minister nearly unable to form a solid, stable coalition, and President Shimon Peres could opt to give Lapid a shot at the task.

With the backing of all the center and left-wing parties, excluding the three Arab factions and perhaps the extremist Meretz party, and with the support of Jewish Home (which despite being right-wing is capable of working with Yesh Atid), Lapid could potentially form a broader coalition than Netanyahu.

On the other hand, if Netanyahu, who has proved himself to be a skillful political negotiator, can convince Shas and Lapid to sit together, he could potentially form a very stable coalition with as many as 85 seats.

The days to come are certain to be intense, and the final outcome of this election is far from settled at this point.