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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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These different faces of Netanyahu suggest a complex man whom even confidants find difficult to read. His handling this summer of a series of incendiary issues with global implications – the flotilla crisis, the proximity talks with the Palestinians, and the dwindling months left to a freeze in West Bank settlement construction – will test how much he's evolved as a leader and an ideologue, not to mention his relations with Washington. More important, it may define whether he will go down as a statesman or a nationalist.

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this time last year, on balmy June evenings, Netanyahu was getting ready to deliver the speech of a lifetime. He and his aides were hammering out the final version of the text they knew would become the most important landmark in his political career so far. He was preparing for an address at Bar-Ilan University – a bastion of political and religious conservatism in a world of more liberal Israeli academia – in which he would go where no Likud premier had gone before. He would declare his support for a two-state solution to the conflict, specifically referring to a Palestinian state.

He knew that many in his own rightist party would find this unacceptable. And so, the day before the speech, he sat down with Likud members and tried to use his best tool: the power of persuasion. Sworn opponents to this two-state concept were not surprised, but neither were they swayed. "I asked him not to use the words 'Palestinian state.' I was very direct with him and said he would be making a huge mistake because if you say it you'll be playing into the post-Zionism of the left," says Danny Danon, a young Likud member. "Unfortunately, he didn't take this advice. But I'm sure that deep inside he knows it's not going to happen."

Ambitious, assertive, articulate, and just shy of 40, Mr. Danon doesn't seem so far from the figure that Netanyahu himself cut 20 years ago when he was rising to international prominence. Though Netanyahu had already served as Israel's ambassador to the UN from 1984 to 1988, the rest of the world seemed most impressed when he deftly argued Israel's case during the Gulf War nearly two decades ago – occasionally donning a gas mask in the middle of a television interview when a new Iraqi Scud missile was headed in Israel's direction – and then continuing to make his point.

Netanyahu's focus on protecting an Israel under threat – then from Iraq, now from Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas – has dominated nearly everything he has done in public life. "Every living organism depends on its ability to recognize the threat to its life in time," Netanyahu said last month in a speech to Russian journalists. It's a maxim he quotes often. Of two political portraits on the wall in his office, one is of Winston Churchill, whom Netanyahu admires for his perception of the Nazi threat long before other Allied powers, including the US. (The other photo is of Theodor Herzl, considered the founder of modern Zionism.)