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Beyond the Gaza blockade: What drives Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu?

Benjamin Netanyahu's handling of the Gaza blockade flotilla crisis has further isolated Israel in the world and strained relations with Washington. Can a tough nationalist emerge as a statesman?

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From the floor of the Knesset plenum to the door of the White House, from the halls of power in Europe and the Middle East to – perhaps most important – the Muqata in Ramallah where the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas sits, there seems to be a shared sense of mystery about who Benjamin Netanyahu really is and who he is ready to become. Perhaps he is his father's son, the heir apparent of an ultranationalist wing of Zionism whose founders saw no space – physically, strategically, ideologically – for an independent Palestinian state on the land now controlled by the Jewish-Israeli one. Or perhaps he dreams of following in the bold footsteps of other Israeli leaders – of Likud founder Menachem Begin when he signed a land-for-peace deal with Egypt in 1979 – and hopes to go down in history as a singular leader who ushered in some viable plan to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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It may be that he wants both. He wants to be Bibi, as he is widely known here, the man who defends Israel from outside pressure to make concessions that might endanger its survival – which is precisely how he has played his opposition to ending Israel's controversial naval blockade of the Gaza Strip. But he also wants to be Bibi, the man who would become Israel's equivalent of Nixon in China – the last man anyone expected to take a risk for peace with the enemy, and perhaps the only one who could do it.

Daniel Ben-Simon, a Labor Party member of the Knesset and therefore a member of Netanyahu's coalition government, says that anyone who tries to decipher the Netanyahu code will find himself exasperated. "Nobody really knows him. I've followed him for years as a journalist, and I really don't know who this man is," says Mr. Ben-Simon, who left a long career at Haaretz, Israel's liberal, intellectual paper, to enter politics last year. "He might bring us to war or he might make peace with the Syrians. Maybe his fans are right; maybe Netanyahu will deliver. I haven't given up yet."

The few people who are close to Netanyahu say they see a man who has evolved and matured. But probably not converted. "Is he entirely changed? Born-again? No, he's not," says one confidant. "People don't change entirely. But there are changes that come with experience. He's trying to do better this time. I think it's possible that he's ready to break through politically, but I'm not sure it's possible, given the limits we see on the Palestinian side."

If there's a new Bibi who has become more open to compromise, it was the old Bibi who seemed to be archly on display in the fallout over the flotilla crisis, sounding a note both defiant and defensive. Given Hamas's ongoing attempts to import arms to Gaza, he argued, Israel has an inalienable right to impose a naval blockade on the Gaza Strip. Israel's soldiers were just acting in self-defense when, in commandeering one of the six ships while in international waters they responded to attacks on deck with live fire, killing nine people.

Publicly, he has rejected calls for an independent international probe of the incident and continues to blame the world for applying "double standards" when it comes to Israel. But privately, he has told US officials he is willing to consider new arrangements on access to Gaza. And on June 10, he eased the blockade, allowing in previously banned food items in an attempt to mollify world criticism.