Matured Netanyahu is Ready to Rule

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By Greg Sheridan

Will it be Likud's Benjamin Netanyahu or Kadima's Tzipi Livni? Barack Obama, and the international consensus of liberal opinion, would certainly prefer Livni, as she is committed to the "peace process", while Netanyahu has never favoured a Palestinian state.

But there is almost certainly less than meets the eye to these differences. Livni has been in government these past years. All Israeli governments engage in the peace process. Israeli Oppositions, on the other hand, get back in by exploiting the failures and disappointments of the peace process.

The odds are strengthening on a Netanyahu prime ministership. He won fewer seats than Livni but more fellow-travelling right-wingers were elected than Centre-Left people, and Netanyahu should be able to form a more stable government than Livni.

Whether it's a narrow coalition, excluding Livni and also Ehud Barak's Labour Party, and therefore with a slight majority, or a broad coalition, including Livni and Barak, will make a big difference to its longevity.

What will Netanyahu be like as PM?

I first met Netanyahu in the mid-1980s when he was Israel's ambassador to the UN. He was already a media super star because of his eloquence, especially on American TV, and his sharp, quick style.

My single strongest memory from that meeting was his opposition to the establishment of a Palestinian state. But what future do you envisage eventually for the Palestinians?, I kept asking in different ways. He wouldn't answer directly but a common Israeli position then was that one day, far into the future, most of the West Bank would revert to Jordanian rule, and most of Gaza to Egypt, the status those territories enjoyed before 1967.

I was not sure that this was Netanyahu's position, however, as he was determined not to state one clearly.

There's no doubt he's as charming and smart as anyone in international politics, with a high-gloss American education in economics. He is a man of diverse parts. He has been married three times and there is a whiff of the playboy or sybarite about him, although he served five years in one of Israel's elite military units. He can also stroll down the shelves of the greatest libraries of Judaica in the world and tell you something about almost every book there.

In 2003 I had a long discussion with Netanyahu in his Jerusalem office, at a time when he was Israel's foreign minister.

His chief thought about the West Bank then was that Yasser Arafat's rule had to come to an end if there was to be any progress between Israel and the Palestinians.

"We have to put an end to 'Arafatistan' next door," he told me. How would you do that, I asked. Again, there was no direct reply.

Yet, and here is the terribly important thing, when Netanyahu was prime minister he felt himself bound by the Oslo Accords, engaged in negotiations with Arafat, withdrew from much of Hebron, and tried hard to negotiate a peace deal with Syria.

Although he has never espoused a Palestinian state, as Livni does, he has made it clear that he is willing to accept one if it means an end to Palestinian terrorism against Israel and an end of Palestinian territorial claims. His position, therefore, is not the polar opposite of Livni's. Rather, she emphasises the positive goal in an attempt to encourage Palestinian opinion; Netanyahu emphasises Israel's willingness to put up with a hard, difficult security situation indefinitely rather than make concessions that do not end terrorism.

The difference is almost this simple: Livni says stop terrorism and you get a state, Netanyahu says stop terrorism or you don't get a state.

Similarly, Netanyahu's position on Jewish settlements in the West Bank is really not so controversial. He says settlements can expand within their existing boundaries but not take any new Palestinian land. It is a common position among all Israeli politicians that some Jewish settlements -- the close Jewish suburbs of Jerusalem, for example -- will be retained by Israel in any final settlement (in exchange for other land given up from Israel proper). Therefore if these settlements expand, upwards as it were, more people within the same area, it doesn't affect peace prospects. The government of which Livni was a minister allowed this.

Bill Clinton's former Middle East envoy Dennis Ross has produced an exhaustive record of his work, The Missing Peace. He provides a fascinating account of Netanyahu and describes what he regards as Netanyahu's self-confidence, which he regards as sometimes straying into hubris. Perhaps chutzpah is the better word.

But two passages on Netanyahu are particularly instructive. Ross writes: "When apprised of the problems he would be creating, Bibi almost always looked for practical ways to overcome them."

Elsewhere, Ross also writes: "Bibi rarely seemed to know how to act on his ideas: how to present them, to whom, and even when to do so. Translating an idea into action seemed beyond his grasp. It was not a lack of intelligence; few are more intelligent than Bibi Netanyahu. It was an impulsive lack of judgment, and a lack of feel for the Arabs generally. But there was something more: often he would come up with ideas simply to get himself out of a jam."

This was a tough judgment by Ross, but it probably had some validity. However, I believe Netanyahu has grown immeasurably since his first time as prime minister. As finance minister earlier this decade, he profoundly re-shaped Israel's economy.

Isi Leibler, the former Australian businessman who is now an important Israeli commentator and knows Netanyahu well, believes he is a much more sober, balanced, judicious, formidable and disciplined politician than he was in 1996 when he became Israel's youngest PM. Netanyahu believes Iran is Israel's biggest threat. He will not be a prime minister to be taken lightly, in Tehran or anywhere else.

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