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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But Bibi has taken a harder line. He says he will accept only Israeli forces, not NATO's or anyone else's, to provide security in the Jordan Valley. Perhaps the biggest impediment is Bibi's insistence that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a "Jewish state." In other words, Palestinians must not only renounce claims to present-day Israel but also accept Israel's historical narrative. It is a little eerie to hear Bibi insist on this because it echoes what his father said over and over for more than 50 years about Israel. To some, Bibi isn't negotiating; he is dictating terms.

The stalemate is what drove Abbas to the U.N. to seek full recognition and membership from the world body last September. The real anxiety for Israel is that recognition of Palestine would give them access to the International Criminal Court, opening Israel up to a potentially vast number of claims. Meanwhile, settlement construction has resumed with a vengeance. Settlements and the buffer zones and roads supporting them now constitute 40% of the West Bank.

The longer Bibi and I talk about the Palestinians, the more I get the sense he just does not believe that they want peace or that they are capable of democracy if they had it. He remains skeptical about the direction of the Arab Spring. "Locke and Montesquieu are not exactly household names there yet," he says.

But what Bibi does have now is a governing coalition that will not leak or collapse if he opens negotiations. He will no longer have to look over his shoulder. He will not have to call elections at the drop of a hat. He has not had that before, and it gives him room to maneuver and room to compromise. "Now he is the emperor ... he can do anything," Abu Mazen said last week. "If I were him, I would do it now, now, now."

Something to Believe In

Bibi likes to say Moses was a great leader but not a great navigator. But to Bibi's delight, it turns out that Moses' sense of direction wasn't so bad after all. The discovery in December 2010 of a gargantuan deposit of natural gas off Israel's Mediterranean coast and an even larger area of shale oil not far from Jerusalem will likely turn Israel into a net oil and gas exporter. No longer will the Arabs in the Middle East have a monopoly on energy.

This bit of serendipity is not enough to turn Bibi into an optimist, but it is something tangible that will help him secure Israel's future. It is, in fact, something to trust. But there isn't much else he trusts. Obama often quotes Martin Luther King Jr.'s notion that the arc of the moral universe is long but bends toward justice. Bibi's not so sure.

In the end, Bibi would like to be a hero, but he will not be one at the expense of Israel's security. He wants to be a defining figure in Israeli history and a significant player on the world stage, but he will not risk what he sees as Israel's safety to be one. His ambition and now his security as Prime Minister, though, may let him take that risk. Of the Palestinians, he says, "If they figure it out, they will never have a better partner than me. I can make it happen and make it stick."

He is a believer in Israeli and Jewish exceptionalism. The Jews have a deeply ingrained ingenuity that has always helped them survive. "Now, with our ingenuity, we also have gas. We're in a providential situation. Our story is one of overcoming tremendous odds. People respect that." He is silent for a moment. "If you're a deeply religious person, you have a guarantee." He pauses, knowing that he has none. "It would be great to sit back. That would be nice." Nice as that might be, he knows it is an option he does not have.

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