NEW YORK — Israelis call him by his affectionate nickname, Bibi, but few speak of him with warmth.
There is no alternative political leader on the horizon, but that doesn’t mean he’s popular at home.
Even though he is not known for his integrity, he is widely trusted with protecting the fate of his people as Israel faces the threat of extinction from a nuclear Iran.
Serving his second tenure as prime minister, controlling 94 of the Knesset’s 120 seats, with no serious rival to succeed him, Benjamin Netanyahu, 62, remains a mystery — the most entrenched yet least liked of Israeli leaders, a brilliant orator and maven when it comes to solidifying political power, but still an unknown in terms of what he intends to do with it.
Armchair psychologists have theorized for years that Netanyahu could not make peace with the Palestinians as long as his father, Benzion, was alive. A noted historian on the Jews of Spain and Revisionist Zionist, the senior Netanyahu expressed strong distrust of Arabs.
He died this spring at the age of 102.
With a single word, Netanyahu the son dismissed recently the notion that his father influenced him politically.
“Psychobabble,” he told journalist David Margolick, whose lengthy, trenchant Vanity Fair profile of Bibi, “The Netanyahu Paradox” (July), describes the Israeli leader as both his country’s “strongest and weakest leader in memory,” wavering between a confident statesman “seeking immortality” and an unsure politician “seeking survival.”
Netanyahu can be charming when the occasion arises but he can also be icily distant — I’ve seen him up close both ways. He is basically a loner, distrustful of the media and fellow politicians, who are equally wary of him. Some liberals still blame him for tolerating the right-wing vitriol that led to the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin.
But even critics grudgingly note that he has helped Israel weather the economic crisis far better than most countries, spurred high-tech business and kept the country out of military entanglements. Some say he has learned from his first tenure as prime minister, from June 1996 to July 1999, and is less arrogant now, a better listener.
One thing is certain: With the threat of a nuclear Iran looming, Washington loath to become involved in another foreign war, much of the Mideast in chaos, and tensions between secular and religious Israelis at a flashpoint, no one thinks Netanyahu has an easy job.
While many would like to see him initiating policies, particularly in breaking the stalemate with the Palestinians, he told Margolick that he sees his primary role as securing Israel’s future and avoiding “major pitfalls.”
One has the impression that on the Palestinian front, the prime minister is running in place, churning rhetorically but taking little action. Maybe that’s his plan. It’s hard to tell, though just about everyone I spoke with during my recent visit to Israel has a theory.
While Netanyahu gets little credit for risking his credibility as the leader of Likud in publicly endorsing a two-state solution to the Palestinian conflict, few believe that he has serious intentions of actively pursuing that goal. His surprise move in bringing Kadima into his coalition in May was a brilliant way of shoring up his political power and avoiding early elections. But it took away his excuse for not pursuing peace talks more aggressively — the claim that religious parties could walk away from his coalition and bring him down.
If he really believes in the two-state solution — and that the longer the delay, the greater the chance of the Palestinians opting for the waiting game/one-state solution — why is he not taking the initiative and pressing for negotiations, or taking steps to counter the Palestinian belief that Israel just wants to expand its West Bank presence?
With Egypt and Syria in deep disorder, Netanyahu has chosen to keep Israel out of the limelight, no doubt a wise move. But at last month’s Israel Presidential Conference in Jerusalem, veteran Mideast negotiator Dennis Ross cautioned that Israel should not remain a passive bystander in the region. The status quo in the Mideast is dangerous, he said, and he suggested Israel seek to revive peace talks with the Palestinian Authority, improve relations with Turkey and help create safe havens for Syrian refugees.
On the domestic front, Netanyahu is seeking to find a delicate political balance in resolving the crisis over the issue of haredim serving in the army and Israeli Arabs performing national service. After a series of fits and starts, including canceling the committee charged with forging a new law by the July 31 deadline, the prime minister seems to have reached an agreement with Shaul Mofaz, the leader of Kadima, who had threatened to lead his party out of the coalition it just joined if Netanyahu did not make good on his pledge to make the army system more equitable.
If achieved, the new law would be an historic breakthrough in bolstering national unity and easing widespread resentment toward haredi men, who have been allowed to substitute government-subsidized Torah study for military service.
Surely the Netanyahu legacy will be judged, though, by the outcome of the Iranian nuclear threat, an issue the prime minister has spoken about — often as a lone voice — for many years. Finally, in recent months he has succeeded in getting the West, and especially Washington, to focus on it with urgency. And though personal relations between Netanyahu and President Barack Obama remain strained, the president has come around, for the most part, to the Israeli position that containment is unacceptable and that Iran must not be allowed to have a nuclear bomb.
The remaining questions concern timing, the value of further negotiations with Tehran and whether or not, in addition to stringent economic sanctions, military action is required.
The clock is ticking now in terms of weeks and months, not years, and the November elections in the United States are a pivotal time for Israel as well.
With Mitt Romney coming to Jerusalem soon to bolster his position with Evangelical Christians and right-of-center American Jews, much will be made of the warm relationship and natural alliance between the presumptive Republican candidate and the Israeli prime minister.
But heads of state don’t get to pick their fellow world leaders; their respective constituents do.
Will Netanyahu attack Iran before the November elections, based on Iran’s steady nuclear progress, favorable weather conditions for an attack, and the concern that a re-elected Obama will be more difficult to sway? Or will he hold off and let the tightened sanctions play out, hoping for a friendlier partner in the White House and to avoid a cataclysmic confrontation with Iran and its surrogates?
So far Netanyahu has been more a man of words than of actions. The future will determine if that holds, and which is the wiser course in dealing with the Palestinians and Iran. The question for him now is not “what would his father say?” but what will he do?
His country’s fate is in his hands.
(Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of The New York Jewish Week, can be reached at Gary@jewishweek.org.)