Editor's Notes: New Year’s wisdom

I don’t know how Netanyahu conceives of the Almighty, but I picture him seeking divine guidance on Rosh Hashana.

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.
I THINK he’s put up a masterful performance these past few days, our prime minister.
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 statehood.That day, as he unhappily saw it, survival trumped ideology.
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.
THERE 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 knows it.
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 Iran.
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 themselves here.
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 Israel.
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 compromise.
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 decisions.
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.