The Curious Case of Benjamin Netanyahu

Will Israel’s prime minister turn out to be a great man, or just a great maneuverer?

For a look back at the long career of Israel’s polarizing prime minister, click here.

James Baker temporarily banned him from the State Department. Madeleine Albright described him as an Israeli Newt Gingrich (and it wasn't a compliment). Bill Clinton emerged from his first meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu in 1996 (then serving his first term as prime minister) more than a little annoyed by his brash self-confidence. "Who's the fucking superpower here?" Clinton exclaimed to aides.

Netanyahu is the first Israeli premier to trigger truly bipartisan recoil.

But love or hate him, we'd better get used to him. The youngest premier in Israel's history when first elected in 1996, and only the third elected to nonconsecutive terms, he's already emerged as a permanent fixture in Israeli politics. And now, presiding over the deepest governing coalition in Israel's history, Netanyahu is here to stay. Indeed, depending on how things go this November, he could even outlast his latest rival, Barack Obama.

The question, of course, is what he'll do with his newfound political clout and staying power.

Uncertainties abound. The Middle East is in turmoil. Wherever you look -- Syria, Egypt, the dangerous political split among Palestinians, Iran and the bomb -- there will be unknowns and dangers for the Israelis for some time to come.

And Israel has its own problems, and a leadership crisis, too. It is undergoing a political transition from a generation of founders who -- whatever their imperfections -- fashioned a remarkable country against extraordinarily grim odds. The era of David Ben Gurion, Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, and Ariel Sharon has given way to a younger generation of leaders who seem to lack the judgment, authenticity, and legitimacy of their predecessors.

Can Netanyahu become the connecting link? Is he a transformative leader who can lead Israel to peace with the Palestinians and out of the shadow of the Iranian bomb? In short, is he the right man at the right place at the right time to craft a bold strategy for Israel on peace, and perhaps war?

Unfortunately, the past doesn't inspire much confidence about the future.

Bibi vs. Netanyahu

Netanyahu's first term as prime minister, from 1996 to 1999, revealed a risk-averse, deeply conservative politician hewing closely to his Likud Party's line -- a man not of history and vision, but instead a clever politician whose primary interest was in maintaining a tough-minded image as a defender of Israel's security, one deeply suspicious and unsentimental about the Arabs.

In the wake of Rabin's assassination and Peres's unsuccessful bid to succeed him, Netanyahu emerged as a critic of the peace process begun at Oslo in 1993. He was deeply suspicious of Yasir Arafat and the Americans, and focused more on protecting settlements (indeed, expanding them), and fighting terror than on an expansive view of the peace process. His September 1996 decision to open the Hasmonean tunnel in Jerusalem sparked some of the worst Israeli-Palestinian violence since the Oslo process began.

And yet, paradoxically, it was that same tunnel crisis that triggered a diplomatic process that would produce two interim agreements between Arafat and Netanyahu (handshakes, too). This would make Bibi -- Oslo's worst critic -- the first Likud prime minister to concede any West Bank territory. And to Netanyahu's credit, by focusing on Palestinian security performance and accountability, there was a dramatic reduction in terror attacks during those years.

But unlike Rabin -- also a tough negotiator, but one with a strategy -- Netanyahu seemed to have no purpose other than maneuver and delay. He might be prepared to take one step forward by signing the Hebron agreement with the Palestinians in early 1997, but then he would take a step back a month later to compensate his political base by moving ahead with settlement construction in the controversial Har Homa neighborhood in Jerusalem.

It was during these years that several Clinton administration officials who would later serve with Obama -- including Rahm Emanuel and Hillary Clinton -- got their first impressions of Bibi. And they no doubt helped shape the new president's view of the prime minister as something of a con man. Obama's wrong-headed decision to push for a freeze on settlement construction (from which he would later back down) may well have been a result of their message: You can't work with this guy; you need to confront him.

And yet, Netanyahu's first term as premier (and part of his second) also revealed that he could be moved. His career is full of strategic retreats: He said he wouldn't sign an agreement with Arafat, but he did. He said wouldn't give back West Bank land, but he did. He said wouldn't agree to the concept of a Palestinian state even on paper, but he has. And he said he'd never agree to a settlement freeze, even a de facto one -- but then he did for 10 months (though only outside of Jerusalem).

In a sense, Bibi, the tough-talking Likud pol, is at war with Netanyahu, the man who aspires to be a great Israeli prime minister. And this tension leaves him open to compromise but also to retrenchment.

Netanyahu's brash exterior masks a more uncertain, unsure, and conflicted interior. He desperately wants to succeed -- and like most politicians, wants to be loved. He knows he'll have to take risks to succeed, but he's not conditioned by either nature or ideology to accept them -- particularly when it comes to deals with the Palestinians. So his mode is to take a step forward and then a step or two back.

The truth is Bibi has never been tested as prime minister with either a huge diplomatic opportunity or a national security crisis that forced him to take real risks. And unlike Rabin, Peres, or his Defense Minister Ehud Barak, he has no real history of proactive risk-taking on the peace or national security side. One example -- the attempted assassination of Hamas leader Khalid Meshaal in Amman in 1997 -- ended disastrously.

On the two critical foreign-policy issues facing Israel today -- Iran and the Palestinians -- it stands to reason that Netanyahu would be more inclined to take risks on the former and avoid them on the latter. Indeed, the peace process is well out of Netanyahu's comfort zone precisely because it bumps up against his own mistrust of the Arabs, his ideology, and party politics. Countering the Iranian nuclear threat, on the other hand, is much more in line with Bibi's view of the kind of heroic action consistent with his self-image.

"Men make history, but rarely as they please"

Karl Marx, while wrong about so many things, was dead-on accurate when he uttered the quote above.

We have a cardboard cutout version of leadership: Leader A confronts Situation B and then, through sheer will, creates Transformation C. But life doesn't work that way, and success in politics certainly doesn't.

Transformative change is an interaction between human agency and circumstances often beyond the leader's control. Teddy Roosevelt, lamenting his own missing crisis, once said that no one would have known Abraham Lincoln's name had there been no civil war. Only with a crisis at hand can leaders -- assuming they are blessed with the right character and capacity -- exploit and help shape what they inherit.

There are clearly crises galore in Israel's neighborhood. But given the sheer number of uncertainties, whether any Israeli leader can exploit them is another matter. Even under somewhat normal circumstances, Netanyahu just hasn't proved to be a risk taker -- at least on the peace issue. And in a region where the margin for error is slim to none, the odds that Netanyahu will risk much on the Palestinians are slim. Alon Pinkas, Israel's former consul general in New York and a former advisor to both Peres and Barak, believes that that Netanyahu sees two fundamental threats to the existence of Israel: a nuclear Iran and a settlement with the Palestinians that takes Israel back to the June 1967 borders.

I've heard all the counterarguments: The best bet for Israel is to make peace now. Iran will be weakened, Arabs democrats strengthened, the demographic pressures on Israel defused, and so on.

These arguments are all compelling. But there's one man they haven't convinced: Bibi Netanyahu. In any case, a breakthrough in the negotiations would require a risk-ready, courageous Israeli leader who knew his own mind and a Palestinian partner with the full backing of Arab leaders. You'd need to stage-manage and orchestrate a diplomatic process with coordinated and dramatic gestures to sustain an agreement in an environment where Arab leaders are either missing, besieged, or hostage to publics increasingly vocal about their anti-Israeli sentiments.

Netanyahu fears many things. But his fear of being played the fool, being humiliated or weakened politically, and taking risks without guaranteed reward is his most pronounced fear of all. He's not nearly as self-confident or willful as his right-wing predecessors Begin and Sharon. Nor, despite his huge governing coalition, is he nearly as universally respected in Israel. To achieve great things means risking great failure. And this requires a truly historic figure.

Bibi: Man of history or man of the past?

Netanyahu is the first Israeli prime minister born after the creation of the state of Israel. And yet, modern as he is when it comes to so many matters -- technology and economic reform, for example -- he's deeply mired in the past. The Holocaust and his late father's writings on the Spanish Inquisition shaped him, and continue to weigh heavily. Rabin would never have used Holocaust imagery to describe Israel's security predicament, and yet Bibi frequently uses analogies from the 1930s when he describes the Iranian threat.

And it's not an act. For Netanyahu, the Jewish people are at risk. It's deeply ingrained in his approach to the world. To be sure, Jews worry for a living -- their dark history compels them do to so. But Bibi worries about everything, including the Americans, whom he believes (perhaps rightly at times) don't understand Israel's situation. You live in Chevy Chase, he once told me -- we don't have any margin for error in our neighborhood.

Ehud Olmert used to say that Israeli prime ministers sleep with one eye open. Bibi sleeps with two open. He's constantly on guard.

The paradox of the deep bench

A number of very smart columnists have been making the argument lately that Netanyahu's deep coalition now gives him a chance to lead, and no excuses not to. But some of the boldest Israeli steps have been taken under very different circumstances: Rabin signed Oslo with a narrow coalition, and Barak attempted to push through Camp David with essentially no government. There's no doubt that if Netanyahu wanted to make peace with the Palestinians, he'd be better positioned now with Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz at his side. But the unity government with Kadima is more a coalition designed to ensure domestic peace and tranquility than to forge a deal with the Palestinians.

Think about it. The unity government insulates Bibi from the pressures of the right wing, improves Israel's global image (if only slightly), defers the chances of elections for at least a year, positions him as a unity prime minister if Israel strikes Iran, and makes an internal challenge on the peace process almost impossible, as Mofaz has agreed to abide by Bibi's rules.

It also protects Bibi against the prospects of a reelected Obama coming after him on the Palestinian issue. At least for the next year or so, the existing government guidelines prevail -- guidelines that make a deal with any Palestinian partner unlikely. To alter this situation, an American president would have to line up the Palestinians, the Arabs, and the international community to make an offer that even Netanyahu couldn't refuse, except at the cost of undermining his own political future. And that's a tall -- perhaps impossible -- order.

Leaders are sometimes found, or perhaps created, in the most unexpected places. And the most intransigent among them can change -- take Begin, Rabin, Sharon, and Olmert. Indeed, the history of peacemaking in Israel is not a history of the peaceniks, it's one of transformed hawks -- men of the right and center right who were changed by circumstance and by necessity, war, and diplomacy.

Can Benjamin Netanyahu be such a transformed hawk?

Ami Ayalon, a former head of Shin Bet and one of the most astute analysts of the region's politics, told me recently that Netanyahu has the chance to do that and more. Theodor Herzl envisioned the idea of a Jewish state, and Ben Gurion helped to create and fashion it. Through peace with the Palestinians, Ayalon observed, Netanyahu now has an opportunity to secure its Jewish and democratic character.

I'd love to believe it. But I won't be holding my breath.

Gali Tibbon - Pool/Getty Images

Reality Check

Barack O'Romney

Ignore what the candidates say they'll do differently on foreign policy. They're basically the same man.

If Barack Obama is reelected, he ought to consider making Mitt Romney his new secretary of state. I propose this far-fetched howler not because I'm trying to get into my own Dumb Idea Hall of Fame, or because white-male secretaries of state seem to be going the way of the dodo at Foggy Bottom (we haven't had one since Warren Christopher departed in 1997), or because I believe deeply in bipartisanship. (Although I do; it's been a long time since we've had a secretary of state who was from the opposing party, and it would be great idea.)

I raise the idea to drive home a broader point. Despite his campaign rhetoric, Romney would be quite comfortable carrying out President Obama's foreign policy because it accords so closely with his own.

And that brings up an extraordinary fact. What has emerged in the second decade after 9/11 is a remarkable consensus among Democrats and Republicans on a core approach to the nation's foreign policy. It's certainly not a perfect alignment. But rarely since the end of the Cold War has there been this level of consensus. Indeed, while Americans may be divided, polarized and dysfunctional about issues closer to home, we are really quite united in how we see the world and what we should do about it.

Ever wondered why foreign policy hasn't figured all that prominently in the 2012 election campaign? Sure, the country is focused on the economy and domestic priorities. And yes, Obama has so far avoided the kind of foreign-policy disasters that would give the Republicans easy free shots. But there's more to it than that: Romney has had a hard time identifying Obama's foreign-policy vulnerabilities because there's just not that much difference between the two.

A post 9/11 consensus is emerging that has bridged the ideological divide of the Bush 43 years. And it's going to be pretty durable.

Paradoxically, both George W. Bush's successes and failures helped to create this new consensus. His tough and largely successful approach to counterterrorism -- specifically, keeping the homeland safe and keeping al Qaeda and its affiliates at bay through use of special forces, drone attacks, aggressive use of intelligence, and more effective cooperation among agencies now forms a virtually unassailable bipartisan consensus. As shown through his stepped-up drone campaign, Barack Obama has become George W. Bush on steroids.

And Bush 43's failed policies -- a discretionary war in Iraq and a mismanaged one in Afghanistan -- have had an equally profound effect. These adventures created a counter-reaction against ill-advised military campaigns that is now bipartisan theology as well.

To be sure, there are some differences between Romney and Obama. But with the exception of Republicans taking a softer line on Israel and a tougher one on Russia -- both stances that are unlikely to matter much in terms of actual policy implementation -- there's a much greater convergence.

Yes, in the interests of winning votes, Romney will hone a few choice attacks in the campaign to come: "The president is weak and an apologizer, I'm not!" "The president doesn't believe in American leadership, I do!" These tropes, however, are either meaningless or inaccurate, and aren't likely to resonate much with a foreign policy-fatigued public.

Four key principles drive the new post, post-9/11 consensus:

1. Fix Our Broken House: These days, any sentient politician understands that the key to American power abroad is inextricably linked to the state of our union here at home. Whether or not our leaders are prepared to pay the political price to address these domestic problems is another matter. But the talking points seem pretty similar: Build our nation first, not anyone else's. Watch what you're spending abroad, and focus on the five deadly Ds at home -- debt, deficit, dysfunctional politics, decaying infrastructure, and dependence on Middle East hydrocarbons.

Whether it's a Democratic or Republican president, domestic priorities have set the tone for a retrenchment in America's global footprint for years to come. When it comes to risky foreign-policy initiatives, expect politicians to take a long look in the rear-view mirror first.

2. But Defend It

: The second core consensus is the need to kill the bad guys abroad before they can kill us, but to do it without invading nations and thus becoming responsible for rebuilding them. Bush 43, for all his other foreign-policy failures, can boast that there were no attacks on the continental United States after 9/11, and Obama -- despite a few near misses -- has maintained the record.

Romney would try just as hard. In this environment, no U.S. president -- if presented with reliable and actionable intel -- would have declined to order a hit on Osama bin Laden in Pakistan or anywhere else. Indeed, the president should be careful about getting into a game of "my predator drone is bigger than yours" with Romney. Fighting terrorists is now a truly bipartisan effort.

3. End Wars, Don't Begin Them: Sadly, the dominant question of America's 21st century conflicts so far is not "can we win?" but "when can we leave?" That was the central question that has occupied Obama's decision-making in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And no matter who becomes president in 2012, there's not going to be much enthusiasm for further adventures abroad or trillion-dollar experiments in nation-building. Democrats and Republicans may finally have broken the code: Discretionary wars and interventions require higher standards for success because, well, they're wars of choice. And our leaders need to be cruel and unforgiving about deciding not only how and when to wage them, but also how to get in and out of them if they do.

The new caution is a bipartisan one. President Romney would have steered clear of unilateral intervention in Libya, and been as cautious as Obama (rightly) has been on Syria. (Iran is a special case, which I will address below.)

4. Subcontract, Create a Committee and a Process Whenever Possible: Whoever came up with the term "leading from behind" erred only in the packaging. Wrong choice of words; right idea. America can't save the world by itself, nor should we expect to or be expected to by others. Let's be clear. We can always lead from the front -- into disaster (see: Afghanistan, Iraq) -- and who wants that?

Instead, the greater challenge is how to decide when and how to intervene successfully in a way that's congruent with our interests and resources. Multilateralism and process became dirty words during the George W. Bush years. And, hey, they're not heroic measures. Indeed, they're time-consuming and often messy because they depend on others. But they can be useful, particularly when vital and core American national interests aren't involved. Think Libya, a moderately successful policy run by committee -- or even a messier situation like Syria, where there are no good options, and acting (or not) with others can fill a vacuum until an opportunity for more concerted action presents itself.

It's not only on these core assumptions that the candidates share a broad agreement. These principles translate into specific policies where it would be tough to tell the difference between a Romney and an Obama presidency:

Iran: Sorry, I just don't see any significant difference between the way Obama is handling Iran's nuclear program and the way Romney might as president. And that's because there's seems to be an inexorable arc to the Iranian nuclear problem. If by 2013 sanctions and negotiations don't produce a sustainable deal and Iran continues its quest for a nuclear weapon, one of two things is going to happen: Israel is likely to strike, or we will.

If it's the former, both Obama and Romney would be there to defend the Israelis and manage the mess that would follow. Both would be prepared to intercede on Israel's behalf if and when it came to that. As for a U.S. strike, it's becoming a bipartisan article of faith that the United States will not permit Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon. And both men are prepared to use military strikes against Iran's nuclear sites as a last resort, even if it only means a delay (and that's what it would mean) in Iran's quest for nukes.

Freedom Agenda: The bloom went off this rose in George W. Bush's administration. The Arab Spring has turned into a long cold winter -- the prospects for the quick and easy rise of democracies in the Middle East are slim to none. A Romney administration might produce a tougher tone in defense of freedom (without any meaningful action) and perhaps more negative rhetoric about Islamists, but would also confront the same bad options and limited leverage Obama has now. On Egypt, Syria, Bahrain, Yemen, and anywhere else the United States is unable to direct the domestic politics in distant lands, Romney would likely adopt much the same approach as the current administration.

Diplomatic Engagement: Had you listened to Obama in 2009, you might very well have concluded that he was out to change the world through engagement and diplomacy. But that was then. Obama has learned quite a bit, and appears to have come much closer to the tougher-minded Romney view on the merits of engaging Hugo Chávez, the Kim regime in North Korea, the mullahs in Tehran, and Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Conspicuously absent from this list of leaders that Obama has seemingly written off is Vladimir Putin, who appears to be an integral part of the White House's Iran strategy.

Romney has taken a much tougher line on Russia and China. Still, the realities of governing would invariably soften the Romney campaign line that Russia is public enemy No. 1 and that China is a currency manipulator.

Israel: Paradoxically, the one issue where Romney and Obama might actually differ is on the most bipartisan one of all -- Israel. Romney's views on Israel are guided more by his gut instincts (see Bush 43) than Obama, whose view of the Israelis is colder and more calculating.

The issue isn't support for Israel's security -- both would be committed to that. It's that damn peace process, which keeps turning up like a bad penny. Obama wants progress, and sees Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as largely responsible for the lack of it. He may want to push  some bold initiative in a second term, but it won't be so easy to do. For Romney, the peace process isn't going to be a priority unless the Israelis and Palestinians -- through violence or diplomacy -- make it one.

The bottom line? The new consensus is that the world's a more challenging place than ever, and both Democrats and Republicans are learning that we can't control it. (Of course, we never did.) That doesn't mean that the United States cannot lead or succeed in protecting its interests, it just means its leaders need to be more disciplined about how and when to project American power.

The new divide on foreign policy is clear -- and I, for one, am ecstatic about it. It's not between left and right, liberal or conservative, or Republican or Democrat. It's between making decisions that are smart, on the one hand, or dumb on the other. And I'm hoping that the next president -- whoever he is -- knows exactly which side America wants to be on.

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