Reality Check: A new year, a new Bibi?

For first time since taking office a second time, Netanyahu has finally given sign that may be ready to shed Bibi of old and knuckle down to talks.

311_Netanyahu, Abbas groping Hillary Clinton (photo credit: Moshe Milner / GPO)
311_Netanyahu, Abbas groping Hillary Clinton
(photo credit: Moshe Milner / GPO)
It’s only natural to enter the new year optimistically, with the hope that this year will be better than the previous one. And, for the first time since taking office a second time, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has finally given a sign that perhaps he is ready to shed the Bibi of old and knuckle down to negotiating, in all seriousness and honesty, a peace agreement with the Palestinians. Even Amr Moussa, the Arab League secretary-general and persistent critic of Israel, seems prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt.
In his speech in the State Department last week, Netanyahu went further than ever in his declarations, telling Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas: “I see in you a partner for peace. Together, we can lead our people to a historic future that can put an end to claims and to conflict.”
Now we all know, and particularly in the case of slick salesmen like Netanyahu, that talk is cheap, but this time his words carried a greater weight, for they were made after the resumption of terror attacks and the murder of four Israelis near Kiryat Arba.
In the past, whenever terror struck on the eve of negotiations, Netanyahu was at the front of the mob demanding the cancellation of talks while Jewish blood was being spilled.
This time around, departing from his written text at the reopening of talks and sounding eerily like Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister stressed “we will not allow terror to prevent us from continuing the peace process.”
It’s not hard to imagine how the Bibi of the 1990s would have reacted to such a statement.
And even more revealing were Netanyahu’s remarks to Israeli reporters after the conclusion of the Washington talks, in which he stressed the importance of demography as a motivating factor behind his desire to see a peace agreement.
Having earlier adopted the mantle of Rabin, Netanyahu suddenly sounded like Ehud Olmert: “I have to ask myself what should be done about the million-and-a-half Palestinians living in Judea and Samaria.
Should they become Israeli citizens? That’s not my point of view.
Should we see them as second-class citizens? I don’t think so. If the solution is that they will have a state, then the question is how to reach an agreement with this state to ensure the security of Israel.”
ONCE THE ideological Rubicon of dividing the Land of Israel has been crossed and the understanding reached that the country can only survive as a Jewish and democratic state if it gives up control of the West Bank, the issue then becomes one of practicalities: how to ensure security in agreement with the Palestinians.
Most of the spadework on this has already been done for Netanyahu.
As Martin Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel, has noted, all the issues, ranging from territorial exchanges to security, from Jerusalem to the right of return, have already been thoroughly discussed over the 17 years since the signing of the Oslo Accords. The solutions to each of these issues is known; all that is needed is for the leaders on both sides to have the courage to sign off on a deal.
While Abbas is seen by many here as weak, such a view ignores the immense changes he has brought to Palestinian society. A critic, from the very first days of the second intifada, of violence against Israel, Abbas has created a new way of life for Palestinians in the West Bank as well as a stark reduction in terror.
The economy, as Netanyahu himself is fond of reporting, is booming, and law and order has returned to Palestinian cities. Even Hebron, the West Bank city most identified with Hamas, is flooded with PA policemen, ensuring a day-to-day normalcy that has been lacking for so long.
During Operation Cast Lead, the West Bank was notable for the lack of anti- Israel protests, as opposed to the demonstrations taking place all over the Arab world. For all this, Abbas deserves more credit than he has received.
And as Netanyahu showed in the buildup to last week’s talks, as far as the Israeli side is concerned, the decision is his and his alone. There was no cabinet discussion on the eve of his visit to stake out a position or outline what or what not the prime minister should say. Netanyahu even cancelled a meeting of the much-vaunted septet that was scheduled to discuss his trip to the US, saying there was no need for the forum to meet.
Just as Ehud Barak decided to withdraw from Lebanon during his short term as prime minister without first consulting his cabinet colleagues, or Ariel Sharon decided on disengagement from the Gaza Strip without seeking the input of his ministers, Netanyahu has the power, should he wish, to enter history as the prime minister who ended the century-long conflict with the Palestinians.
The new year will tell – very quickly given the need to finesse the settlement- freeze obstacle – whether we are also seeing the birth of a new Bibi.
The writer is a former editor in chief of The Jerusalem Post.