Putting Bibi in a corner

His relationship with the U.S. unravelling, Benjamin Netanyahu is, at best, a reluctant partner in the latest peace talks


The ritual has become numbingly familiar. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and John Kerry, the U.S. secretary of state, trot out to meet the media before a backdrop of their national flags. There’s a bit of happy chat, followed by a ceremonial handshake—with an added free-arm squeeze to indicate rapport—then two brief, formal statements. Kerry expresses cautious optimism about his efforts to reanimate the dead horse that is the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. And Netanyahu does his best to lower the already subterranean expectations.

“I know that you’re committed to peace. I know that I’m committed to peace,” the Israeli PM declared as the pair met in Jerusalem last week, during Kerry’s 10th visit since March. (An 11th is already scheduled for later this month.) “But, unfortunately, given the actions and words of Palestinian leaders, there’s growing doubt in Israel that the Palestinians are committed to peace . . . Instead of preparing Palestinians for peace, Palestinian leaders are teaching them to hate Israel.”

Netanyahu’s latest complaints centred around the hero’s welcome that Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, accorded a group of 26 prisoners released from Israeli prisons just before the new year. Convicted for terrorist attacks, they had all been held since before the 1993 Oslo agreement, the closest the two sides have yet come to finding an acceptable ending to a conflict that has now endured for three generations. The issues that divide are familiar—entrenched disagreements over border lines, the fate of West Bank settlements, the rights of refugees and security arrangements—and perhaps more complex than ever. But with Barack Obama approaching the end of his presidency, and the greatly altered landscape of Middle East politics, the U.S. seems determined to force the matter. The current plan calls for a framework peace agreement to be in place by the end of April. And, despite the pessimism, the two sides have engaged in 20 rounds of talks over the past five months. “The time is soon arriving when leaders will have to make difficult decisions,” Kerry warned last week.

The secretary of state was careful not to single out the man he unfailingly refers to as “my friend Bibi,” but it’s clear that Netanyahu’s dilemma is even greater than his Palestinian counterpart’s. A lifelong hawk, he could now find himself faced with making significant concessions to advance a peace process he didn’t initiate and had hardly been contemplating. For years, his main foreign policy focus has been the containment of Iran’s nuclear ambitions. His re-election campaign last winter centred almost entirely on domestic issues such as the expansion of the military draft to include members of ultra-Orthodox sects. And the fragile coalition Netanyahu built after his slim victory is anything but sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinians.

“John Kerry has really thrown a wrench into Netanyahu’s plans,” says Natan Sachs, a fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy in Washington. The renewed and urgent push for peace came almost without warning, and at a time when the ties between the Israel and the U.S.—its biggest benefactor at more than $3 billion a year—appeared to have reached a historic nadir. Substantial disagreements over how to deal with Iran since Netanyahu returned to the prime minister’s office in 2009—he first held the job from 1996 to 1999 morphed into antipathy during the run-up to the 2012 U.S. elections, when Democrats came to believe that Netanyahu was openly pulling for the Republican challenger Mitt Romney. “No one denies it’s a moment of crisis in the relationship,” says Sachs. “And there’s tension at the very top between Netanyahu and Obama.”

During a G20 summit in late 2011, an open microphone picked up a candid conversation between then French president Nicolas Sarkozy and Obama about the Israeli PM. Sarkozy, once a friend of Netanyahu’s, said he could no longer bear him and branded him a liar. “You are fed up with him, but I have to deal with him even more often than you,” was Obama’s response.

This past November, Netanyahu again found himself on the outside looking in, as the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany reached a tentative deal with Iran that will see it suspend its nuclear program in return for an easing of economic sanctions. Calling the agreement a “historic mistake,” Netanyahu predicted it would make the world “a much more dangerous place.” His vociferous objections failed to alter the terms, however, and his combative approach earned harsh criticism from the Israeli press, and even his own coalition partners. “We must regain the world’s ear and restore our intimate relationship with the U.S.,” said his finance minister, Yair Lapid.

Netanyahu’s estrangement from the U.S. is curious, given that he is almost as American as he is Israeli. Born in Tel Aviv in 1949, he spent much of his childhood and teenage years in the States, as his father, Benzion, a historian and author, taught at various American universities. (The prime minister’s English still bears traces of a Philly accent, thanks to his Pennsylvania high school experience.) In 1967, Netanyahu returned to Israel and spent five years serving in the Sayeret Matkal, an elite commando unit, seeing plenty of action and taking a bullet in the shoulder during a 1972 hostage rescue operation. After his discharge, he again crossed the ocean to study architecture, management and political science at MIT. For a time in the late 1970s, he worked alongside Mitt Romney at the Boston Consulting Group. And through the 1980s, Netanyahu served as an Israeli diplomat, first in Washington, then as the country’s ambassador to the UN in New York.

It wasn’t until 1988 that Netanyahu first sought office, joining Likud, winning a seat in the Knesset and the post of deputy foreign minister in the government of Yitzhak Shamir. After the party’s 1992 election defeat, he rose to its leadership. And, in 1996, he became Israel’s youngest-ever prime minister, pipping Labor’s Shimon Peres on the strength of a very American-style campaign, helmed by a Republican party hired gun.

But Netanyahu quickly proved himself not ready for prime time. “During his first term as prime minister, he made every mistake possible, on domestic and international issues alike,” says Abraham Diskin, head of the management and government program at Sha’arei Mishpat College, an Israeli law school.

Bibi 2.0, however, has been much more adept in power, astutely managing his political partners and avoiding most pitfalls. Voters seem to be shrugging off recent revelations about his and his wife Sara’s extravagances, including $127,000 to install a bed on a chartered aircraft, as well as $23,000 in flowers and $1,700 worth of scented candles for their official residence. As it stands now, Netanyahu really has no rivals. (The opposition Labor Party holds just 15 of the Knesset’s 120 seats, and has a brand-new leader in Issac Herzog.) And, even if his coalition shatters over the peace process, he would be the logical choice to again form a government, likely with the help of the left.

Netanyahu has long argued against the “myth” that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a root cause of many Middle East problems. And with the continued fallout of the Arab Spring, including the turmoil in Egypt and a bloody civil war in Syria, few will argue the point. But that altered dynamic also means that the West is no longer quite so preoccupied about what is good for Israel. Diskin cites the growing international backlash, which has manifested in boycotts, divestment and increased recognition for the Palestinian Authority. “Israel is losing ground, there’s no doubt about it,” he says. “The Palestinians are winning the propaganda battle.”

A visit from Stephen Harper this month—the Prime Minister’s first-ever trip to Israel— will offer some moral support. In recent years, Canada has become one of the Jewish state’s most ardent supporters, breaking diplomatic ties with Iran and joining the U.S., Marshall Islands, Panama, Palau and three other countries in voting against Palestine’s enhanced UN membership in 2012.

For Netanyahu, the coming months will be one long tightrope walk, as he seeks to project steadfastness to his coalition partners, while demonstrating flexibility to the U.S. History suggests the latest efforts to strike a deal with the Palestinians will fail—for many of the same old reasons—but the Israeli prime minister is already hedging his bets. “Any kind of peace we have is likely, initially, at least, to be a cold peace,” Netanyahu said in a closed-circuit address to a Washington think tank last month. Still, that would be degrees better than the frozen status quo.