Bibi's Choice

Will He Make War? Can He Make Peace?

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Marco Grob for TIME

Netanyahu has history on his mind

On the final night of passover, Benjamin Netanyahu is carrying a tray piled high with the sweet marzipan cookies Moroccan Jews eat to celebrate the end of the holiday. He offers me one and says in a stage whisper, "You can get sugar shock from these things." He then pats his belly in the universal gesture of I can't afford to have one myself and grins. We are in Or Akiva, a working-class town south of Haifa where chickens roam the dusty streets and where Bibi--everybody but everybody calls him Bibi--has arrived to mark the end of the fast in a traditional Jewish celebration known as Mimouna. The owner of the dirt-floored house, who has rough hands, nine children and 23 grandchildren, toasts the Israeli Prime Minister. These are the people who worship Bibi and believe he is the only man who can lead Israel.

Ten minutes later we are in the ancient port city of Caesarea at a party at the regal home of a movie-theater magnate, where young people wear the latest fashions and do not clamor around Bibi. It is well after midnight, the party has thinned out, and we are eating shawarma prepared by an Israeli Arab from Nazareth. The Arab caterer comes over to say hello, and Bibi tousles the hair of the caterer's young son. Caesarea, Bibi tells me between mouthfuls, was built by Herod around 25 B.C. "Herod," he says with a smile, "was a much better builder than a general."

Bibi has history on his mind. Bibi always has history on his mind. He talks about what he learned from his first term, when he was practically chased out of office. "I thought I was finished in 1999," he says with a shrug, "that my career in politics was over." But then something changed. He gestures around him and suggests that in the space of half an hour, we had visited the two Israels, one blue collar, the other the gilded class. He acknowledges that his popularity with the first group--the outsiders, the Sephardim, the Russians, the ultra-Orthodox, the settlers--not the European Ashkenazic elites, brought him back to power.

After a political thunderstroke on May 8 in which he created a center-right coalition with the rival Kadima party, giving him an enormous legislative majority, Netanyahu is poised to become the longest-serving Israeli Prime Minister since David Ben-Gurion, the founding father of Israel. He has no national rival. His approval rating, roughly 50%, is at an all-time high. At a moment when incumbents around the world are being shunted aside, he is triumphant. With his bullet-proof majority, he has a chance to turn himself into the historic figure he has always yearned to be. He has become, as some commentators have dubbed him, the King of Israel.

But to be a historic figure, one must make history. Now we will find out what the king really believes. Is he a statesman or a pol, a builder or a general, the Israeli leader who can finally make peace with the Palestinians or the one who launches a potentially disastrous unilateral attack on Iran? Can he keep Israel a distinctive Jewish state and preserve it as a democratic one? As a historian of the Zionist movement, Bibi knows these choices better than anyone else. As a soldier, he also understands the dark history that lies behind the creation of Israel. The question is whether he is a prisoner of that history or can write a new narrative.

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