Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Netanyahu Is One Decision Away From A New Mideast

Only one of the Israeli prime minister's potential decisions would fundamentally change Israel's relations with the Palestinians and Syrians: removing the settlements.

By Aluf Benn
This comment was published in Haaretz on 3/11/2010
The Oslo Accords or the Six-Day War? Which better symbolizes the "Rabin legacy" - a peace agreement or a military triumph? The debate is evoked anew every autumn when we commemorate the slain prime minister, with positions generally split along political lines. Leftists like the Rabin of agreements and ceremonies, while rightists prefer to associate the man with the army, the Temple Mount and the Suez Canal.

But the comparison is unfair. In 1967, Yitzhak Rabin was IDF chief of staff, and despite his central role in the lead-up to war, Israel's strategic decisions were made by others. In 1993, as prime minister, the choice between working with or repudiating Yasser Arafat fell on Rabin alone.

Every leader faces decisions in his or her career that influence reality - either by deed or by default - and everything else is mere maintenance or crisis management. These are the moments that grant a leader freedom of choice, to veer left or right, to act or to stand in place. They are the moments in which a leader can determine the course of history, and Rabin did just that in choosing Oslo.

Another prime minister - or even Rabin himself under different circumstances - would have selected a different path. But Rabin made a decision and stuck to it, and thereby built himself a legacy. All of the other decisions he made - peace with Jordan and spurning a similar agreement with Syria - were ultimately derived from the same fateful decision that would cost him his life.

The careers of other leaders have been similarly characterized by such decisive moments. The great Winston Churchill, Benjamin Netanyahu's idol, made one momentous decision in his life: choosing not to pursue peace with Germany during its 1940 invasion of France, but to continue the fight against Hitler. All of his other actions - the sweeping addresses, the iconic images of his cigars and victory signs - now serve as no more than footnotes to the historic position he took against Nazi Germany. From then on, and until the end of the war, Churchill's influence over the course of events was marginal. His legacy was forged during the five critical days (documented in John Lukacs' book "Five Days in London" ) in which he convinced his cabinet that Britain must stand up to Hitler, even if it did so alone.

Charles de Gaulle - of whom Ehud Barak is an ardent fan - made two decisions that shaped modern France: fleeing in 1940 with retreating British troops to London, from where he issued regular radio broadcasts; and relinquishing France's hold on Algeria in 1962 and granting the country independence. Barak is now exhorting Netanyahu to be a de Gaulle and not a Churchill - because the British leader merely said "no" and refused to budge, while his counterpart in Paris settled on no less than changing the world.

David Ben-Gurion made three critical decisions: declaring Israel's independence in 1948 from Britain, making Jerusalem Israel's capital and building the Dimona nuclear facility. Levi Eshkol was dragged against his will into the Six-Day War, but at its end decided not to withdraw from the territories captured but keep them under Israeli control - a decision that changed the face of the Middle East. Golda Meir made one crucial decision in her career - rejecting Anwar Sadat's feelers for peace - a choice that exacted the heavy toll of the Yom Kippur War. Menachem Begin decided to withdraw from the Sinai Peninsula, to build 100 settlements in the West Bank and to bomb the Iraqi nuclear reactor. Yitzhak Shamir's most significant decision was to maintain the status quo in the territories. Rabin had Oslo, Barak the Lebanon withdrawal, Ariel Sharon the Gaza disengagement, and Ehud Olmert the Second Lebanon War and the strike on the Syrian reactor.

Netanyahu, who left no deep imprimatur during his first term as prime minister, has also yet to change a thing since returning to office. Over the next year, following the U.S. midterm elections, he'll have a last chance to decide whether to strike Iran or wait for Barack Obama to make headway against the Islamic Republic, as well as whether to change the face of the West Bank and Golan Heights or maintain the status quo.

Only one of the prime minister's potential decisions would fundamentally change Israel's relations with the Palestinians and Syrians: removing the settlements. Everything else is empty prattle, things that keep diplomats and envoys looking occupied. Only the evacuation of settlements - or on the contrary, their expansion and development - will change the facts on the ground.

These are the fundamental decisions before Netanyahu: strike Iran or keep the planes grounded, remove settlers from their homes or raise a new generation of Israelis in the territories. These are his Oslo moments, and his choices will shape the future of Israel and the place of the current prime minister in its history.

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