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

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Bibi's days-old coalition is more a marriage of convenience than a high-minded quest for national unity. Eight days after the death of his beloved father, two days after calling for elections, Bibi made the deal with Kadima to give him an overwhelming majority. It's been likened to the national unity government that Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol put together on the eve of the Six-Day War, a darker time than today. Some say Bibi's new alliance with a more moderate party gives him the political margin to strike Iran's nuclear facilities unilaterally. If so, Bibi is mum. He tries not to mix the issue of Iran with elective politics. Still, he is routinely hammered by the Israeli press. He gets it from all sides, even close to home. At the end of the evening, Bibi's eldest son walks over to the table. He is currently doing his military service and is slighter and fairer than his father. "My son tells me I have too many yes-men around me," Bibi says with a knowing laugh. "Oh, what I would give for just one yes-man!"

When we see Bibi in America or Europe, he seems American or European: he adapts himself to his environment. In Israel, Bibi seems more Israeli, more Middle Eastern. His accent is heavier; his clothes are more rumpled; he is funnier and more relaxed, more rooted to the land of his father and forefathers. The former head of Israel's internal intelligence service recently called Bibi messianic, unsuited to handle the levers of power. Netanyahu himself calls the Iranians messianic, and perhaps it takes one to know one. He is profoundly ambitious and driven, but there is no doubt that he sees his primary responsibility as being the custodian of Israel's safety and that his mission is to preserve his nation for his children and grandchildren. How he does that will be his legacy.

For Netanyahu, the Jews are not so much God's chosen people as his argumentative ones. They don't take things on faith. Abraham, Moses and Job, he notes, all argued with God. And sometimes won. Like Bibi, they were ornery and maybe had a chip on their shoulder. You can imagine Bibi arguing with God, and he probably does. Israeli society hums with contest and grievance. The name Israel derives from Jacob's wrestling with the angel. Islam, Bibi has suggested, is about submission, Judaism about arguing. And if you disagree, he will argue with you. Just because everyone thinks something, he says, doesn't mean it's right.

When I ask Bibi whether he thinks the Iranians are rational actors, he replies, "People say that, but how do you know that?" How do you know that? could be his mantra. People say the Palestinians want to live in peace. How do you know that? People say the Arab Spring is good for democracy. How do you know that? His attitude is, Show me the evidence. Prove it. He sees himself as the last empiricist. He thinks people, especially liberals, take too much on faith. He dwells in reality.

Bibi can live with an unfinished argument. After all, the Israelis have been going at it for 4,000 years. Bibi may monitor the polls day to day, but he also puts things in the context of Israel's history. This too shall pass, he often seems to be saying. We can wait it out. People say the status quo is unsustainable. How do you know that? What's another five years, or 50?

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