Can Netanyahu Make Peace With the Palestinians?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu regularly consults with his father, Benzion. Michal Fattal / Likud-Getty Images

Israeli prime ministers don’t usually have time for long chats with people outside their circle of advisers and deputies. Yet the day before an important speech last year, Benjamin Netanyahu spent two hours with the novelist Eyal Megged, listening to his ideas and filling several pages with notes. Just two months into his term, Netanyahu was under heavy pressure from President Obama to endorse the idea of a Palestinian state. The speech he was preparing to give at Bar-Ilan University would be a major policy address. For the better part of the afternoon, Megged and a second novelist he’d brought with him, David Grossman, suggested passages they’d written in advance, soaring prose about reaching out to the Arab world and ending the long conflict with the Palestinians. “I thought he should open with something dramatic, a big gesture,” the 62-year-old Megged told me over coffee in Jerusalem one morning recently.

Megged has a complicated relationship with Netanyahu. They became friends a decade ago, after Netanyahu read one of his books and sent him a flattering note. Since then, Megged and his wife have regularly spent time with the Netanyahus. But the association appears to have hurt the novelist’s career. Megged says many of his fellow writers, who tend toward the left politically, have shunned him. The left-leaning Haaretz newspaper stopped reviewing his books.

When Megged watched the speech on television the next day, he was dumbfounded. Netanyahu had failed to in-corporate a single phrase the writers had suggested (in a phone conversation, Grossman confirmed Megged’s account). Though Netanyahu did give the idea of a Palestinian state a conditional nod, the tepid endorsement lacked the generosity of spirit the two novelists had hoped to inject in the text. Megged took it not only as a political affront but also a personal one. “I told my wife many times since then that he [Netanyahu] appreciated the courage it took on my part to go against the tide, but he himself is not that way.”

This week Netanyahu travels to Washington for the long-anticipated start of direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians. To a large extent, their success depends on his willingness to go against the tide of just about everything in his life, past and present—his right-wing coalition, his uncompromising father, and his own record of rejectionism. Netanyahu said last week he was ready to “surprise the critics and the skeptics” by seriously pursuing an agreement. Getting there will require bold leadership on the Palestinian side as well. But while Netanyahu has pledged to make dramatic compromises in exchange for security guarantees, he has painstakingly avoided details, fueling suspicions that his new peace mantle is there only to deflect pressure from Washington. “I don’t think anyone knows exactly what he has in mind,” says an aide who worked closely with Netanyahu during his current term as prime minister, asking not to be quoted by name. “Even in closed meetings, he doesn’t go into detail.”

That caginess has not been his trademark. In fact, for much of his career Netanyahu has been the most consistently and outspokenly hardline politician in Israel. He spent his first term as prime minister in the 1990s trying to undo the impact of the Oslo peace accords. He has written two books with long sections on why a Palestinian state would pose a mortal danger to Israel (those sections were not deleted from the latest edition of A Durable Peace: Israel and Its Place Among the Nations, even though it was published last October, four months after Netanyahu publicly backed the idea of Palestinian statehood). Netanyahu opposed Israel’s evacuation of settlements from Gaza in 2005 and, on the eve of his election last year, assured viewers of Israel’s Channel 2 television he would not dismantle a single settlement in the West Bank. “I think anyone with eyes in his head understands that today, any territory you evacuate will be taken over by Israel’s bitterest foes,” he said just 18 months ago.

Is Netanyahu being honest when he now says he’s ready to compromise? An official who works with him says the prime minister’s reserve should not be mistaken for intransigence: announcing concessions upfront would be a bad negotiating strategy. Certainly, Israeli leaders are entitled to change their minds. Netanyahu’s two immediate predecessors, Ehud Olmert and Ariel Sharon, had track records as hawkish as his. Yet as prime ministers, Sharon withdrew from Gaza, and Olmert offered Palestinians more than 90 percent of the West Bank. For both men, the change was bound up with a recognition that Palestinians would eventually outnumber Jews if Israel maintained the status quo, forcing the country to sacrifice either its Jewish character or its claim to democracy. Both men talked openly about their transformation.

Netanyahu, by contrast, doesn’t believe Israel faces a demographic threat, according to Naftali Bennett, who served as his chief of staff from 2006 to 2008. “He thinks it’s a bluff.” And he has not bothered to explain how Israel could live with the very danger—a Palestinian state—he has been warning about for so long. (In his book, Netanyahu says no number of security guarantees could provide the strategic advantage Israel gets from keeping troops in key areas of the West Bank.) What he has talked about repeatedly is the way the Palestinian bombings of the second intifada and the Hamas takeover of Gaza in 2007 have vindicated his positions. “All the events that happened subsequent to his first premiership only reaffirmed and strengthened his beliefs,” says Bennett, who now heads the Jewish settlers’ main leadership body, the Yesha Council.

Then there’s the kin factor. Sharon and Olmert were both prodded toward the political center by close family members. In Sharon’s case it was his son Omri. Olmert had his wife, Aliza, an artist and political dove. People who know Netanyahu say his stern and unswervingly hawkish father, Benzion, remains the most influential person in his orbit. Netanyahu himself has described consulting his father before major decisions. “You have to listen carefully to the father when you judge Bibi,” says Megged, who has spent time with them together, referring to Netanyahu by his nickname. “Bibi is not a rebel. He can’t get himself free from this tie with his father. Benzion sits on his shoulder and he can’t move.” A former adviser to Netanyahu concurs: “His father has a huge influence on him. Huge.”

Benzion was a towering figure in the pre-state Revisionist movement, the stream of Zionism that opposed even the slightest territorial compromise with the Arabs. Just after his 99th birthday last year, he gave a long interview to the Israeli newspaper Maariv in which he said, among other things: “If it’s possible, we should conquer any disputed territory in the land of Israel. Conquer and hold it, even if it brings us years of war.” I asked Megged to describe a particular interaction between the two Netanyahus. “They are both very coldblooded people,” he said. “You don’t see warmth but you see the respect. You see that influence on him.” (An official in Netanyahu’s office said in response: “The idea that the prime minister is not his own independent political player doesn’t stand up to reality.”)

Still, some key people are convinced that his pivot is real. The list includes a number of foreign leaders and a few influential Israeli journalists. In his conversations with them, Netanyahu has said he wants to get past the paralysis of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in order to focus on the larger threat: a nuclear Iran. In his telling, the main obstacle is Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who has tarried for more than a year while Netanyahu froze settlement expansion and practically begged for direct negotiations. The argument is not meritless. The fact that Palestinians have twice in the past decade walked away from far-reaching Israeli offers should certainly raise questions about their ability to close a deal. Aluf Benn, the respected reporter and columnist for Haaretz, wrote about having such a conversation with Netanyahu late last year and then surprised many of his readers with the words: “I believe him.”

But plenty of other people don’t. In late September, when the moratorium on settlement expansion ends, Netanyahu will have a chance to prove the skeptics wrong. But his hawkish coalition members will almost certainly vote to resume construction in the West Bank. “I think it should be clear,” Likud cabinet minister Benny Begin told me recently, “we will build in all our towns and villages in Judea and Samaria [the biblical term for the West Bank] with no distinction between this bloc and that bloc.” And the idea that Netanyahu would dump his right-wing partners to form a more centrist coalition seems unlikely, according to an adviser who has worked with him on and off for years: “Bibi always quotes [American political consultant] Arthur Finkelstein—‘Keep your base. That’s the most important thing.’ ” On that point, Netanyahu has something in common with Abbas, who faces challenges from within his party and from the rival Hamas. But in one way at least, the Palestinian leader has it easier than his Israeli counterpart. Abbas must prove he can deliver an agreement. Netanyahu has the added burden of proving he really wants one.

With Joanna Chen