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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But then came the raid. "Man plans, God laughs," holds a famous Yiddish saying, one that Netanyahu's ancestors in Eastern Europe probably knew well. (His ancestry is directly linked with a revered religious sage known as the Vilna Gaon, or genius, of Poland.) Instead of reaping the benefits of victories large and small won over the past few months, Netanyahu now finds himself on the defensive domestically and internationally – and jousting with Washington once again. It's a position he knows and plays well.Skip to next paragraph
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In his controversy-clouded first term, Netanyahu ran into a crisis early on when he allowed the opening of an underground tunnel, which ran beneath Jerusalem's holy places and exited in the Muslim quarter of the Old City. Ehud Olmert, then the mayor of Jerusalem, got the go-ahead from Netanyahu. Three days of deadly riots ensued.
While campaigning for the Labor Party a few years ago, Ami Ayalon, the former head of the Shin Bet, Israel's internal security service, blamed both of them for failing to cope with the fallout. A leader should be evaluated, Mr. Ayalon said, "according to the way he handles moments of crisis and pressure." He continued: "When the Western Wall tunnel opened in 1996, and the riots and pressure began, I know where Bibi and Olmert were. They were not there; they disappeared."
That negative image, one of fumbling or fading into the woodwork during crises, has dogged Netanyahu for years. Behind the smooth-talking exterior and the seamless, self-assured answers he can provide in flawless English or Hebrew is a man who is easily rattled, critics say. But longtime friend Dore Gold, who served as his ambassador to the UN in the 1990s, says it's not an accurate portrayal.
"There's a myth that he's nervous under pressure. But I've seen him be very firm," says Dr. Gold, now head of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. Gold says he has learned much from his previous experiences as prime minister and foreign minister, as well as his stint as opposition leader in between. "He knows what it's like being at the apex of power. That's an advantage. I think now there are fewer surprises. He knows what's essential and what's just noise."
The botched flotilla raid was certainly unexpected. Netanyahu has surrounded himself with a tight group of six ministers, known as the "septet." The decisionmakers signed off on what they thought was a straightforward commandeering of the flotilla, as has been done with previous boats carrying activists trying to reach Gaza. Now, of course, everything looks different.
"He's trying to manage his way out from something he didn't even consider could happen," says Dan Meridor, a veteran Likud colleague who is deputy prime minister and minister of intelligence and atomic energy. "The decision was made to carry this out with actions that, judging on past experience, seemed routine, and which was presented as something that could be dealt with without violence. Whether it was a smart move or not, there was no intent to harm."