Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Netanyahu turns 60 - At age 60, matured Netanyahu has second go at peace making - Feature

(earthtimes.org).Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu turns 60 Wednesday, celebrating the landmark birthday back in the premier's seat, older and - he assures his critics - wiser. A decade after he had his first go at what some have called one of the most difficult jobs in the world, he faces the same challenges.

There is still a peace process that has yet to deliver results, harsh criticism of Israel's policies in the occupied territories, and a complex political system which requires skillful manoeuvring between pro-settler hardliners on one side, and those clamouring for a peace breakthrough on the other.

He has moderated somewhat his former maximalist approach to the peace process, speaking out in favour of a Palestinian state, albeit a demilitarised one.

But the first six months of his premiership have been overshadowed by a row with the United States and the Palestinians over Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank, which has stalled the already-suspended peace process.

The US is searching for a compromise with Israel on the issue, but Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas remains insistent that there will be no negotiations unless Israel halts completely all construction in West Bank settlements, and in East Jerusalem, something Netanyahu has pledged not to do.

Netanyahu, leader of the right-wing Likud party, has also ruled out an Israel withdrawal from East Jerusalem, which Palestinians see as the capital of their future state.

Consequently, if the talks do get going again, it is far from certain that they will lead anywhere, although critics point out that in the past Netanyahu's tough statements did not match his actions.

And one thing Netanyahu does not lack is critics, both in Israel and abroad.

For much of his first, three-year premiership, begun in 1996 when he was only 46 years and Israel's youngest ever premier, he was a divisive figure. Although he has said he has changed and matured, even 10 years on, few people feel neutral toward him.

His enemies still accuse him of being untrustworthy, devious and an opportunist with no real political goals. Some would even call him "Mr. Opinion Poll" - relying too much on surveys to follow public opinion, rather than initiating policies and shaping it himself.

These critics accuse him of believing that his eloquent, polished rhetoric can be a substitute for a coherent policy.

They point to the fact that while he began his first premiership with comparisons to John F Kennedy (mainly because of his youthe), he ended it abandoned by coalition allies and castigated by just about everyone else.

His supporters, on the other hand, regard him as intelligent, professional and highly proficient, able to defend Israel's interests in a hostile world.

They say his tough approach to peace-making during his first premiership ended the spate of suicide bombings by Palestinian militants against Israelis, and lowered Palestinian expectations in the peace process.

American-oriented and -educated, with a Masters in business administration from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the articulate, media-savvy and Tel Aviv-born Netanyahu gives off an appearance of slick professionalism, unlike the dour, colourless Israeli politicians of previous generations.

The son of a respected academic, he grew up on his father's right- leaning, nationalist ideology and served as an officer in an elite Israeli army commando unit, like his elder brother Jonathan, who became a national hero when was killed in the daring Israeli operation to rescue hostages in Entebbe, Uganda in July 1976.

The question is to what extent Netanyahu, at 60, twice married with three children and one grandchild, still hostage to his father's hardline ideology, or the opportunist who would not take unpopular risks for peace.

Or have his views evolved and moderated sufficiently to allow him to fulfill the old Israeli adage that only a right-wing leader can make peace?