Bibi’s New Name

Close followers of the recent Israeli election may remember a flap over whether Benjamin Netanyahu changed his name while he was living in America. Well, it turns out his name was changed more recently — by the American press. His new first name is Hardline.

It is difficult to find a story about Israel that does not describe Netanyahu as a hardliner. What other political official is always referred to this way? Saddam Hussein? Fidel Castro? Muammar Qaddafi? Not even these international pariahs receive such treatment. But we wouldn’t want Netanyahu to be compared to that group anyway, so a more apt comparison might be to British Prime Minister John Major. His insistence, for example, that the IRA end terrorism before it will be included in negotiations is similar to Netanyahu’s policies; yet, he is not constantly called a hardliner.

What does it mean to be a hardliner? Is someone else a softliner? Yitzhak Rabin perhaps? Remember him, the guy who threatened to break the bones of the Palestinians?

All right, it is fair to say the Likud positions vis-a-vis the peace process are tougher than those of the Labor party, but that means you are using the latter as the measuring stick. Major’s party is also hardline compared to the British Labor Party.

What is interesting is that Netanyahu is showing signs, like most officials, of moving toward the center now that he’s been elected. He appears certain, for example, to go through with the redeployment in Hebron. He has also put together a negotiating team to continue talks with the Syrians.

The most dramatic change in his rhetoric and policy since the campaign is Netanyahu’s acknowledgment of Yasir Arafat’s leadership of the Palestinians. For all the years of demonization, and suggestions that an alternative leadership could be found, he has finally accepted the reality that Arafat and the PLO are the only game in town. His principal advisor, Dore Gold, met with Arafat almost immediately, as did Foreign Minister David Levy. The Defense Minister is slated to meet with him soon and it is only a matter of time before Hardline Bibi does the same.

Take that right-wingers!

Though Netanyahu has said that he is not bound by informal understanding made by his predecessors, he should consider moving farther to the left and adopting elements of the blueprint for a final settlement with the Palestinians proposed by Yossi Beilin. According to the plan, Israel would annex part of the West Bank to bring 70 percent of the Jews in the area under Israeli control.

Imagine that, Labor not only used the forbidden phrase “annexation,” but actually planned to do it! Beilin also said no settlements would be dismantled.

Take that left-wingers!

The Likud hardliners (including Menachem Begin), for all their commitment to “Greater Israel,” have never advocated annexation. The Likud is routinely pilloried for allegedly planning to annex the territories, but Labor was never questioned about its intentions.

Beilin has given Netanyahu the opportunity of a lifetime. By annexing the same area Labor proposed, he can restore a chunk of “Greater Israel” and then will be free to build and expand settlements to his little heart’s content in the territory now within Israel’s borders.

Beilin also was prepared to accept a demilitarized Palestinian state. Surprise! If you read Foreign Ministry documents from the beginning of Rabin’s tenure, it was clear this was the direction Labor was headed. The truth is Israel’s acquiescence isn’t really necessary, because the outcome became inevitable when Begin first proposed granting the Palestinians autonomy. Once they have control of most of their affairs, Israel can’t stop the evolution. Even today, they are close to statehood and, as the International Olympic Committee proved, global recognition won’t require a formal declaration of independence. Netanyahu would be best served by simply dropping the subject altogether and focusing on security arrangement to minimize any threat (which will be minimal anyway) from the Palestinian-controlled areas.

The arrangement Beilin proposed on refugees needs further consideration. He was apparently willing to allow Palestinian refugees to settle in the Palestinian state. Does Israel want hundreds of thousands of penniless, homeless, jobless Palestinians moving to the territories? This would satisfy a key Palestinian demand and force Arafat to confront serious economic issues. His almost certain failure to meet the refugees’ needs, however, could produce a large disaffected population that would be recruiting fodder for Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

The most controversial element in Beilin’s proposal was a resolution to the dispute over Jerusalem. I have to give him credit for coming up with the rather elegant idea that the Palestinians set up their capital in a West Bank suburb of Jerusalem — Abu Dis. This preserves the unity of Jerusalem.

I’m skeptical the Palestinians really were prepared to accept this, but I like the idea. So long as the old and new city is united in Israeli hands, let the PLO fly its flag over Abu Dis.

By adopting something approaching the Beilin plan, Netanyahu could satisfy his critics in the United States, whose main concern is a resolution of the “Palestinian problem.” Frankly, he can be as hardline as he wants toward Hafez Assad, because the Syrians have no support whatsoever here. No one outside the State Department will pressure Netanyahu to make concessions on the Golan Heights.

Who knows, in four years, Hardline Bibi might have a new name.