Netanyahu moves to confound crisis and drive home Israeli style message of peace


FEW people would regard the six months since Benjamin Netanyahu came to power in Israel as particularly successful. The peace process with the Palestinians is in crisis characterised by a complete lack of mutual trust at leadership level, and an equally absolute breakdown of confidence in the field.

Ties with Egypt have rarely been more strained, suffering new blows almost by the week - spy scandals, old war crimes dragged into the headlines, President Hosni Mubarak's public complaints that Mr Netanyahu has betrayed him with false promises of speedy peace progress. There is constant talk of war on the Syrian front, with Damascus even threatening the use of chemical weapons.

And other, more distant Arab states have halted moves towards normalised relations.

Domestically, Mr Netanyahu's cabinet is a forum for bickering and back stabbing, with ministers cheerfully attacking his policies from left and right. The economic prognosis, as a direct consequence of the diplomatic deadlock, is gloomy growth is slowing, unemployment is increasing, few believe Mr Netanyahu has the courage to force through essential cuts in government spending.

Even on a personal level, he has had it tough. His attempt at emulating President Clinton by bringing his wife into the public spotlight has backfired badly, with Sara Netanyahu widely perceived as a domineering, badgering wife, with an obsession with cleanliness and an inability to retain domestic staff.

Worse still, she has a brother, Haggai Ben Artzi, who was once a close ally of Mr Netanyahu's but has now become his most embarrassing critic. Accusing his brother in law of having abandoned his pre election principles, Mr Ben Artzi has moved in with Hebron's Jewish settlers, and from this most sensitive of focal points he routinely castigates Mr Netanyahu for the benefit of each and every foreign camera crew that passes through town.

Not too surprisingly, however, among those few people unwilling to accept the conventional scathing characterisation of his first half year in power, Mr Netanyahu himself is the most prominent. To hear him tell it, the dire picture generally painted of his administration is a media distortion.

The scepticism about his commitment to peace is utterly misplaced. Those pessimistic economic forecasts are wide of the mark. Much like Mr Clinton, on whom he modelled much of his successful election campaign strategy, Mr Netanyahu insists he will prove the doubters wrong - bringing peace, security, economic growth and rising international stature to his country - and thus emulate the US President in achieving a second term in office.

At a briefing ahead of his visit to Dublin on Wednesday - the first trip to Ireland by an Israeli Prime Minister - Mr Netanyahu mounted a robust defence of his government and its policies, delighting in presenting himself as "a contrarian" - flying in the face of accepted wisdom, making peace his way.

"Everybody says everything is down, and I say it's not down," he chortled. "Everybody says everything is hopeless, and I say it's not hopeless. Everybody says there is no hope for peace, and I say there is great hope for peace. Everybody said I couldn't form the government, and I did form the government."

Now, on a trip that is taking him first to Portugal and Spain, the Prime Minister said he would have the opportunity to correct those distortions, to tell European leaders in person the truth about his unrelenting "pursuit of peace". And there was "a great deal", he said, "that should be communicated directly, because I'm not sure that the normal coverage of events here in Israel conveys the facts fully and accurately".

The "conformism" in media coverage, he lamented, was nothing but a "poor excuse for not thinking ... Somebody sets the line: `There is no hope for peace. The economy is going down the drain. Israel's relations with all its neighbours are doomed'."

The facts, he asserted, were quite different. Israel's peace treaty with Jordan was standing firm. The peace process with the Palestinians was continuing. Even talks with Syria, suspended for so long and now being supplanted by the rhetoric of war, would resume. "We will have ups and downs," he acknowledged. "But at the end of the day, we shall have an up. Israel will have peace with all its immediate neighbours."

Persuasive though Mr Netanyahu most certainly can be in person, his defiant insistence that he is bent on peacemaking is hard to reconcile with his own, and his ministers', actions and words elsewhere. Just a few days ago, he made a high profile visit to Ariel a large West Bank settlement, and spoke enthusiastically of his plans to expand this and other settlements. His ministers pledge similar settlement building on the Golan Heights, the captured mountain ridge that Syria demands back in exchange for peace. Ministers even talk of declaring Israeli sovereignty throughout the West Bank and Gaza should Mr Yasser Arafat have the temerity to unilaterally announce Palestinian statehood there.

Most tellingly, perhaps, Mr Netanyahu has chosen to surround himself with advisers almost uniformly renowned as staunch opponents of the Oslo framework accords for Middle East peace. His leading policy adviser, Mr Dore Gold, was one of the few prominent academics to have opposed the agreements from the moment the then prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, and Mr Arafat shook hands on them in 1993. His media September adviser, Mr David Bar Illan, used his former job as editor of the Jerusalem Posi to castigate Mr Rabin, his hapless successor, Mr Shimon Peres, and Mr Arafat almost daily.

Despite all this, Mr Netanyahu remains insistent that he does aspire to a reasonable settlement with the Palestinians, and that current difficulties stem not from a deliberate policy of destroying the process, as his critics charge, but from an attempt to ensure "reciprocity". Although it was the Palestinians who recently presented Israel with a document detailing 34 Israeli breaches of the Oslo accords, including the overdue Hebron redeployment, Mr Netanyahu claims it is Mr Arafat's Palestinian Authority that is failing to keep its side of the peace bargain.

He blames them for failing to extradite suspected murderers and other militants, for failing to "dismantle the terrorist organisations" such as Islamic Jihad, for continuing to advocate Jihad (holy war) against Israel, and even for failing to abrogate the PLO charter - which Mr Arafat had dealt with to Mr Rabin's satisfaction.

The Palestinians and their Arab backers don't like these Israeli demands, the Prime Minister noted. "They'd much prefer a government that just gives them everything." But his government was determined to create "mutuality in peace". And the quicker the region and the international community understood this, he said, the quicker peacemaking would get back on track.

The last time Mr Netanyahu paid a visit to Europe, his decision to open a second entrance in an archaeological tunnel in Jerusalem's Old City set off gun battles that left more than 60 Palestinians and IS Israelis dead, and forced him back home early. This visit" he doubtless hopes, will go more smoothly. In Ireland, he said, he wanted to boost bilateral ties and to "glean lessons" rather than teach.

But his main purpose, it seems will be to correct what he sees as that unfair perception of his government reflected in the media to confound the preconceived notions. And confounding expectations, of course, is what Mr Netanyahu does best. The conventional wisdom six months ago was that he would lose the elections. He didn't.

The conventional wisdom now is that he is destroying Israel's, relations with the Arab world and leading his country inexorably back into conflict. He insists he isn't. And that's what he'll be telling them, with his customary good natured but firm authority, in Dublin's corridors of power on Wednesday.