The Unlikely Peacemaker
Ephron, Dan, Newsweek
Byline: Dan Ephron; With Joanna Chen
Netanyahu says he'll 'surprise the critics and skeptics.' really?
Israeli prime ministers don't usually have time for long chats with people outside their circle of advisers and deputies. Yet the day before an important speech last year, Benjamin Netanyahu spent two hours with the novelist Eyal Megged, listening to his ideas and filling several pages with notes. Just two months into his term, Netanyahu was under heavy pressure from President Obama to endorse the idea of a Palestinian state. The speech he was preparing to give at Bar-Ilan University would be a major policy address. For the better part of the afternoon, Megged and a second novelist he'd brought with him, David Grossman, suggested passages they'd written in advance, soaring prose about reaching out to the Arab world and ending the long conflict with the Palestinians. "I thought he should open with something dramatic, a big gesture," the 62-year-old Megged told me over coffee in Jerusalem one morning recently.
Megged has a complicated relationship with Netanyahu. They became friends a decade ago, after Netanyahu read one of his books and sent him a flattering note. Since then, Megged and his wife have regularly spent time with the Netanyahus. But the association appears to have hurt the novelist's career. Megged says many of his fellow writers, who tend toward the left politically, have shunned him. The left-leaning Haaretz newspaper stopped reviewing his books.
When Megged watched the speech on television the next day, he was dumbfounded. Netanyahu had failed to in-corporate a single phrase the writers had suggested (in a phone conversation, Grossman confirmed Megged's account). Though Netanyahu did give the idea of a Palestinian state a conditional nod, the tepid endorsement lacked the generosity of spirit the two novelists had hoped to inject in the text. Megged took it not only as a political affront but also a personal one. "I told my wife many times since then that he [Netanyahu] appreciated the courage it took on my part to go against the tide, but he himself is not that way."
This week Netanyahu travels to Washington for the long-anticipated start of direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians. To a large extent, their success depends on his willingness to go against the tide of just about everything in his life, past and present--his right-wing coalition, his uncompromising father, and his own record of rejectionism. Netanyahu said last week he was ready to "surprise the critics and the skeptics" by seriously pursuing an agreement. Getting there will require bold leadership on the Palestinian side as well. But while Netanyahu has pledged to make dramatic compromises in exchange for security guarantees, he has painstakingly avoided details, fueling suspicions that his new peace mantle is there only to deflect pressure from Washington. "I don't think anyone knows exactly what he has in mind," says an aide who worked closely with Netanyahu during his current term as prime minister, asking not to be quoted by name. "Even in closed meetings, he doesn't go into detail."
That caginess has not been his trademark. In fact, for much of his career Netanyahu has been the most consistently and outspokenly hardline politician in Israel. He spent his first term as prime minister in the 1990s trying to undo the impact of the Oslo peace accords. He has written two books with long sections on why a Palestinian state would pose a mortal danger to Israel (those sections were not deleted from the latest edition of A Durable Peace: Israel and Its Place Among the Nations, even though it was published last October, four months after Netanyahu publicly backed the idea of Palestinian statehood). Netanyahu opposed Israel's evacuation of settlements from Gaza in 2005 and, on the eve of his election last year, assured viewers of Israel's Channel 2 television he would not dismantle a single settlement in the West Bank. …