My heart goes out to the prime minister this Rosh Hashana. It truly does. I
envisage him at prayer, imploring the Almighty for the wisdom to make the right
choices for his country, for his people.
There is arrogance in Netanyahu,
of course. Nobody becomes the prime minister of Israel without the staggering
arrogance, the elevated self-confidence, to believe that he (or, just the once,
she) is uniquely capable of leading this country to tranquility or keeping it
safe in the interim.
But one also senses a certain humility in him now, a
humility that was not there the first time he was prime minister. An enhanced
respect for the forces of history, perhaps, and a rueful appreciation of his own
past mistakes, his foibles and limitations.
I don’t know how Netanyahu
conceives of the Almighty, though I do promise to ask him when he gets around to
giving proper interviews again. I cannot imagine he subscribes to Stephen
Hawking’s newly argued theories of godlessness and existential self-ignition. At
the very least, I can picture him looking at his children, as all parents do,
and concluding that since nothing within his grasp could begin to explain their
wondrous construction, there had to be some higher power.
And so this
Rosh Hashana, much more fervently than last year, when the pressures had yet to
pile up and the flush of victory was still brightening him, I see him reaching
out to that vague unknowable spirit, and asking for guidance.
he’s put up a masterful performance these past few days, our prime
Last November, when he emerged to announce the 10- month
settlement moratorium, he looked like what he was: a torn, rattled man who had
been forced to choose the least bad of two lousy options: infuriate and further
alienate the United States, whose support and solidarity is indispensable to
this country’s very survival, or infuriate and further alienate the settlement
movement, whose ideals go to the heart of his conception of Jewish
That day, as he unhappily saw it, survival trumped
These last few days, by contrast, he has looked serene and
unruffled. He seemed at ease alongside US President Barack Obama at the White
House a week ago, in such marked contrast to the body language of some of his
earlier visits. He appeared gracious and deliberate when turning to Mahmoud
Abbas the next day at the State Department, and describing this leader, of whom
he had hitherto been so skeptical, as the “partner” in whose company he hoped to
go such a long way, in such a short time, for peace.
And he has come
across as firm and focused, since his return from Washington, in telling
ministers, party colleagues and international visitors alike of his
determination to make progress in negotiations to give independence to the
Palestinians and to safeguard Israel.
Masterful, indeed, but still a
performance. Beneath the calm surface, there must be turmoil. For there
is no finessing the contradictions and conflicts that lie ahead.
MAY be a short-term route out of the settlement freeze impasse. Formally,
Netanyahu may not extend the moratorium, but on the ground not much will move
outside the settlement blocs for the next few months. Obama won’t let Abbas
escape the talks until the mid-term elections, and so that crisis will be staved
off a little longer.
But the big decisions won’t go away, and Netanyahu
The big decision on Gilad Schalit. Whether to pay a price
Netanyahu has written books opposing, with a near-certainty of so much further
bloodshed and bereavement, or risk the death of a son of Israel, with
incalculable implications for national morale.
The big decisions on
Netanyahu emphatically sees parallels between the Islamic Republic
and the Nazis. He knows that, in contrast to the Second World War, when an
entire nation had to be won over and protractedly geared up for the mechanics of
mass murder, murderous modern technology means millions can be wiped out
nowadays with the flick of a switch. He cannot countenance the majority of world
Jewry being regathered to our historic heartland only to again face genocide. He
has profoundly internalized the Jews’ revived sovereign capacity to protect
But when to act? When is it premature and when is it too
late? Will the international community yet apply sufficient pressure? How to
act? With whom?
And yes, the big decisions on Palestine. The Palestinian
Authority, under Abbas and especially Salam Fayyad, is winning over the
international community, cementing the concept of justified, imminent statehood,
no matter what Israel’s objections may be.
When Israel’s most articulate
advocate, Alan Dershowitz, pronounces the PA’s prime minister to be “probably
the best” potential peace partner Israel has ever had, as he did in a phone
conversation with me immediately after meeting Fayyad for 90 minutes last May,
you know that every less discerning interlocutor will have been still more taken
with the urbane, self-effacing statemaker, and never mind that Fayyad’s
published program for Palestine-building barely hints at reconciliation with
Netanyahu came into office a year-and-a-half ago confident that
he would be able to drive a better territorial bargain with Abbas than the deal
proffered by the departing Ehud Olmert.
But as the years go by, it is the
Palestinians who remain steadfast, and the Israeli side that tries to sound
tough while it offers ever more.
We’d speak about relinquishing a
wrenching 85 or 90 percent of the West Bank in the 1990s, despite our insistent
claims to the historic Jewish heartland; this jumped far above 90 percent at
Camp David 10 years ago; then Olmert offered the whole West Bank with some land
swaps, and Netanyahu has since hinted at concessions in Arab neighborhoods of
Jerusalem. But the Palestinians merely check off international agreements and
resolutions, selectively interpreted, that belie any notion of territorial
Nobody knows this better than Netanyahu. At the State
Department last Thursday, he paralleled Israel and the Palestinians with the
biblical brothers Isaac and Ishmael, and declared, in what was by far his most
conciliatory speech, that “President Abbas, history has given us a rare
opportunity to end the conflict between our peoples.”
Abbas came back
with a lawyerly recitation of demands and the risible, offensive assertion that
the Palestinians have thus far respected all their past commitments and honored
all their past agreements.
Given that this American presidency has
demonstrated precious little sympathy for the notion of an Israel expanded
beyond its 1967 dimensions, and that much of the international community is
increasingly unimpressed by Israel’s existence at all, there seems no particular
reason for Abbas to soften his position – especially given the hostility to
Israel among his own people.
But if there is no better territorial
bargain to be driven, what is Netanyahu planning to do at the peace table? Push
and hope for an Abbas walkout, belying that rhetoric about a partnership? Agree
to dismantle the vast majority of the settlements, and to rehouse a sizable
minority of the settlers? Or try to play for time, even when he’s said that he
wants to make rapid progress, and when he knows that stagnation will only weaken
support for Israel, further bolster the Palestinians, and strain that vital
alliance with America even as Iran closes in on the bomb?
How is Netanyahu, at
one and the same time, to stay true to his ideological home – including his own
father’s convictions – and retain his right-wing political base, without
deadlocking the peace talks he has now so enthusiastically entered? But how, if
the talks go nowhere, will he keep Labor in his coalition or entice Kadima to
replace it, and how, amid such deadlock, will he maintain the improved climate
of those crucial ties with Obama?
IN SYNAGOGUE this Rosh Hashana, I envisage all
these challenges and contradictions running through Netanyahu’s head, and my
heart goes out to him.
Being Israel’s prime minister is arguably the
hardest job in the world. Safeguarding a tiny, mighty, vulnerable country in a
vicious region that wants rid of you, and protecting a people worldwide whose
existence is also inextricably tied up with yours. Leading a nation with the
richest, most improbable of histories, in a world where nations can and do
disappear. Surrounded by many who wish the worst upon you, and just a few who
wish the best.
I picture Netanyahu seeking divine guidance in his New
Year prayers, for a people that was sustained in exile for centuries by its
faith. And I hope God, whatever that is, grants him the support and good advice
of honest men, and the strength and wisdom to make nearimpossible
For this, I suspect, will be a fateful year for the feisty,
illustrious, embattled and resilient people of Israel. And we will need all the
strength and wisdom we can get.