Wednesday, December 16, 2009

NYT Op-Ed: Netanyahu's High-Wire Act

Op-Ed By URI DROMI-NYT).In the summer of 1987, thousands of Jerusalemites gathered above the local cinematheque to watch Philippe Petit, the famous high-wire artist, walk on a rope across the Ben Hinom Wadi to Mount Zion.

This was just few months before the first Intifada, but the excited crowd that gathered there on a sunny day had no clue of the lava ready to erupt below. Their eyes were glued onto the brave Frenchman and they held their breath for an agonizingly long time until he finally touched the safe ground on the other side.

This memory comes to mind when I watch Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu maneuvering through strong political winds and balancing between conflicting pressures with such artistry that Petit sometimes seems to pale in comparison.

Indeed, the elasticity Mr. Netanyahu has been displaying recently is awesome. The man who has written a book on why a Palestinian state was a mortal threat to Israel (“A Place Among the Nations”) eventually spoke the unspeakable when in his speech at Bar Ilan University last June 14 he agreed to a Palestinian state.

The same man — who has written another book advocating never to negotiate with terrorists — is now about to strike a deal with Hamas on the release of an Israeli prisoner, Corporal Gilad Shalit, in return for close to 1,000 prisoners, including some who have committed or masterminded acts of terror.

Mr. Netanyahu has also announced a 10-month freeze on settlements, when I still have vivid memories of him leading the most vehement rallies in 1995 against the Rabin government, which viewed the settlements as a liability rather than an asset.

The Israeli prime minister has also had to waltz to the tune of an impatient Obama administration while at the same time maintaining a level of independence worthy of a leader of a sovereign state.

I’m not saying this to suggest that Mr. Netanyahu doesn’t have a spine. Menachem Begin came to power in 1977 on the ticket of Greater Israel but nonetheless gave all of Sinai back to Egypt in return for peace. Yitzhak Rabin, who had sworn never to speak with the P.L.O., signed a tract with that organization. Ariel Sharon, once the greatest supporter of the settlements, pulled out of Gaza. And Ehud Olmert, another right-winger turned pragmatist, discussed with Mahmoud Abbas the division of Jerusalem. True leaders, at historic crossroads, should be able to rise above their previous dispositions.

So as we all watch the performance of Mr. Netanyahu today, the question is whether this is for real. Is Mr. Netanyahu set on walking the full length of the rope, or is he just trying to buy time?

Someone — I’m not sure whether it was Petit himself or another high-wire acrobat — once revealed the secret of this dangerous exercise. Explaining how he makes the crossing, he said, and I quote from vague memory: “You always have to focus on your destination. Once you look back, thinking about where you’ve started, you’re finished. You’re going to fall.”


Going back, or even hanging there in the middle of the rope, hoping that by some miracle everything will be resolved, is not an option for Benjamin Netanyahu.

If the people in Jerusalem in 1987 didn’t know that the Intifada was coming, today we know better: This place is moving slowly but surely toward a bi-national state, where the Arabs, due to sheer demographic trends, will become the majority.

In that case, Israel will either lose its Jewish identity or become an apartheid state. Mr. Netanyahu can’t go down in history as the Israeli leader who could have changed this course of events but failed to do so.

Analogy has its limits. Petit, before his stunt at Mount Zion, walked in 1974 on a rope between the Twin Towers of Manhattan. The real show there, alas, came much later, in 2001, when the forces of evil chose those same towers to display their deadly act.

So with Mr. Netanyahu. What is happening now in front of our eyes is not an artistic performance. Risky as that may be, if the acrobatics fail, the acrobat alone pays the price.

Mr. Netanyahu, on the other hand, is taking all Israelis with him when he steps onto the rope leading from Israel’s past to its future.

Many Israelis are reluctant to follow. It is not unthinkable that a few of them are even praying for Mr. Netanyahu’s fall.

Remember, Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated for less than what Mr. Netanyahu is willing to give the Palestinians today. Therefore, at this crucial moment, our prime minister needs our vocal encouragement and support.

Go, Bibi, go.

Uri Dromi, the director of the Mishkenot Shaananim cultural and conference center in Jerusalem, was the spokesman for the Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres governments from 1992 to 1996.