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Reality Check: Can Netanyahu break old habits?
The question is whether Netanyahu is brave enough to follow in Sharon’s footsteps. Within a couple of months we will know the answer.
The clock is ticking on US Secretary of State John Kerry’s attempts to kick-start negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

After five visits to the region and scores of hours of one-on-ones with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Kerry has to be able to point to a breakthrough soon in order to justify the vast amount of energy he is expending on restarting a Middle East peace process.

It’s not as if there aren’t any other matters, both in the region and afar, that are demanding the secretary of state’s attention. Now that the US has finally decided to arm Syrian rebels, Washington is inevitably going to be drawn into the bloodbath there. For the first time since its 2011 withdrawal, Washington is even sending US troops back to Iraq to help Iraq’s military stop al-Qaida-aligned forces arming extremist groups over the border in Syria.

In Egypt, the demonstrations for and against Islamist President Mohammed Morsi have already claimed a number of lives, including that of an American citizen, and the turmoil in the Arab world’s largest nation seems far from over. The surprise victory of Hassan Rohani in the Iranian presidential elections meanwhile does not suddenly promise an end to the nuclear crisis with Tehran.

And this is just a snapshot of some of the problems in the Middle East with which Kerry has to deal, before he turns his attention to matters of equal, if not more importance for Washington, such as negotiations with the Taliban in Afghanistan and America’s relations with Russia and China. The latter have taken a turn for the worse in recent months, as highlighted by both countries providing shelter to Edward Snowden, the fugitive National Security Agency contractor who blew the whistle on the NSA’s surveillance programs.

Kerry himself has talked of a deadline of the end of September for showing some material result for all his shuttling between Ramallah and Jerusalem.

Once the Washington summer vacation season is factored in, alongside Ramadan and the Rosh Hashanah season in Israel, this leaves the top US diplomat with very little time to secure the breakthrough he is so desperately seeking before the annual convening of the United Nations General Assembly.

SO WHAT are Kerry’s chances for success? Essentially they boil down to whether Netanyahu breaks the habit of a lifetime and commits to negotiating, in good faith, with the Palestinians. Netanyahu may be skeptical of the possibility of reaching a final-status agreement with Abbas, but he also knows maintaining the current status quo is untenable in the long run.

Speaking last week at the memorial for Theordor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, Netanyahu pointedly remarked that “we do not want a binational state,” which will be the demographic consequence of Israel continuing to occupy the West Bank. And in a further signal of Netanyahu’s move away from his traditional, hardline policies, the prime minister is also responsible for an unofficial building freeze in the settlements, much to the disappointment of the majority of Likud Knesset members and his Bayit Yehudi coalition partners.

In fact, Netanyahu seems to be moving further and further away from the Likud party he nominally heads. Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon’s recent statements that the government would not agree to a Palestinian state based on Israel’s borders before the 1967 Six Day War or that the hawks inside the governing coalition would never allow the establishment of a Palestinian state more accurately reflect the sentiments within the Likud than do Netanyahu’s declarations that Israel is genuinely seeking to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians.

Despite an official disavowal of Danon’s remarks by the Prime Minister’s Office, Danon was nevertheless overwhelmingly elected as head of the Likud convention last week with 86 percent of the vote and, at the time of writing before Sunday’s internal party elections, Danon also seems poised to win another landslide victory and become chairman of the Likud central committee. This position is no sinecure: it will grant him power to set the agenda of the committee’s 3,500 members and complicate any initiatives on the part of the prime minister.

Some commentators are already forecasting a Ariel Sharon-like moment for Netanyahu, in which the prime minister throws off the ideological shackles of his party and sets out in a new direction involving the evacuation of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the unilateral drawing of temporary borders until a final peace deal can be achieved.

Such a move would run contrary to all Netanyahu’s past behavior, but with the support of coalition partner Yesh Atid and the Labor Party from the opposition, it would not be politically impossible. The question is whether Netanyahu is brave enough to follow in Sharon’s footsteps. Within a couple of months we will know the answer.

The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.
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