Israel: Now, More than Ever, Fascinated By Netanyahu

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Susan Walsh / AP

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, left, shakes hands with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as Jordan's King Abdullah II, second from right, and Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak, sit, during their statements in the East Room of the White House.

If, in Israel, no great suspense adheres to the question of what will come of the newest round of direct peace talks — "not much" is the consensus — real mystery surrounds the stocky, golden-tongued gentleman on President Obama's right on the red carpet Wednesday.

No question that's Benjamin Netanyahu. But what is he doing?

The attentive son of a right wing historian, Netanyahu campaigned against the 1993 Oslo Accords the first time he ran for prime minister, and returned to office in 2009 by assembling a coalition of religious and nationalist parties that oppose almost everything Israel would be presumed to give up in the negotiations he claims to have embraced enthusiastically. Not two years ago, at the start of his second term, he opposed the entire premise of the negotiation: That Palestinians should get a state of their own.

So while coverage of the launch of the talks was respectful and straightforward, assaying Netanyahu's sincerity has become a parlor game for an Israeli public that thought it knew him. Journalists traveling to D.C. with the official Israeli delegation studied him like a Chinese wall poster.

"It was fascinating to watch Netanyahu in the two days of this summit," Nahum Barnea wrote in the daily Yedioth Ahronoth. "First, because he appeared happy: focused. Authoritative. Confident of his ability." The columnist noted Bibi refrained from trying to one-up his Palestinian counterpart, as both sides did in 1991 Madrid. "He kept his word completely. He went even further: he turned willingness to reach an agreement not only into a commitment of his government, but his own personal commitment. I am the man who has decided to make painful decisions, he says. Try me."

Said Uri Misgave, in the same pages: "At this time, it's very hard to determine anything about Benjamin Netanyahu's desire: Beyond political survival, nobody has declared on his behalf what he truly wants to get, and not only on the diplomatic front."

Tzipi Livni, whose Kadima Party ended up as the opposition despite outpolling Netanyahu's Likud in the 2009 ballot, says she wishes the prime minister well in conspicuous pursuit of the cause — negotiated final peace — that was the centerpiece of her own party's platform. And though she refrains from assigning motives, Livni notes that Israel's standing in the international community was reaching perilous lows. "It affected relations with the United States," she told TIME. "And for the average Israeli, relations with the United States are a matter of feeling safe and secure."

A constellation of other rationales wheeled through the public discussion, including the incentive of access to new American military technology, including stealth fighters. And no one doubts that, in complying with Obama's oft-stated desire for a serious push at resolving the Palestinian conflict, Netanyahu is obliging Israel's paramount ally in the effort to thwart Iran's nuclear effort, the issue Israelis see overriding all others.

But overlapping interests are not nearly so fascinating as the question of whether a politician is looking to become a statesman. On the inbound flight, Netanyahu was informed that four Jewish settlers were murdered in their car by gunmen dispatched by Hamas, the militant Islamist group that governs the 1.5 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, and chose this way to protest talks. The prime minister's response — that he would ignore terror designed to upend negotiations — echoed Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister who signed the Oslo pact, and was murdered by a right-wing Israeli for doing so.

A week ago, in Haaretz, the daily favored by Israel's political class, Aluf Benn asked: "Who is Benjamin Netanyahu? Is he our Gorbachev, a great reformer who will end Israeli rule in the territories?" The widely noted piece observed that in cultivating Washington and the international community, the prime minister was following his role model, "Theodor Herzl, the father of political Zionism, who fought for the support of the great powers." Comparison was also made with Nixon, who as a lifelong hawk could afford to reach out to Communist China.

But could Bibi be Gorby? Danny Danon, a Likud colleague who opposes talks, thinks for a minute. It depends on the Palestinian side, he says. "I think if he thought he had a real partner, he'd be willing to cross the line," Danon says. "He's a much better prime minister than the first time. Maybe he's not making more decisions, but he thinks more."