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Israel’s Netanyahu approaching moment of truth on peace accord

Imagine this scenario: President Obama delivers an address to the nation, in which he says he would use force if Syria doesn’t strip itself from its chemical arsenal. Later, on the same day, National Security Advisor Susan Rice appears in a public event and dismisses the president’s words, quoting an anti-war statement he delivered as a freshman senator 11 years ago. Ms. Rice’s message, in this hypothetical scenario, would be: Don’t take the president seriously. The real Barack Obama would never use force.

Unimaginable, you say. If that ever happened, Rice would be booted out of her job immediately.

Yet this is exactly what happened recently in Israel. Secretary of State John Kerry came to Jerusalem to reiterate the American resolve to push forward the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Standing next to him at the press conference, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu assured his guest that “we’ve embarked on this effort with you in order to succeed, to bring about a historic reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians that ends the conflict once and for all.”

Netanyahu had already committed himself to a two-state solution in his 2009 Bar Ilan speech, but just in case anyone had doubts, Kerry, in his remarks, was pretty blunt: “I am talking to both leaders directly. And everybody, I think, understands the goal that we are working for. It is two states living side by side in peace and in security.”

A few hours later, however, Zeev Elkin, Israel’s deputy foreign minister, had totally different things to say. Speaking to a crowd of Likud party members in a toast for Rosh Hashanah, he reminded his listeners of a debate in the Likud 11 years ago about the issue of a Palestinian state, where none other than Netanyahu himself voiced the fiercest opposition to the idea. “Yes to a Palestinian state is No to the Jewish state,” Elkin quoted Netanyahu’s words from 2002, “and No to the Palestinian state is a Yes to a Jewish state.”

In other words, Elkin — who, in case you forgot, is the deputy foreign minister — is saying to the public: Don’t listen to the prime minister. He only talks like that to please the eager Americans. The true Netanyahu will never agree to a two-state solution.

Now, did Elkin get a message on his cell phone even before he got back to his office, telling him he was fired? Not exactly. Netanyahu, a master of political survival, can try and dismiss this as yet another price one has to pay for leading a coalition government.

If Elkin, a member of Yisrael Beiteinu party (now a faction in the Likud), were a single dissenting voice in Netanyahu’s choir, then the prime minister could have brushed him off easily. But at his government table also sits Naftali Bennett, minister of economy and leader of the Habayit Hayehudi party, a senior member of the government coalition, who said in June that “the idea that a Palestinian state will be formed in the land of Israel has come to a dead end.”

If this is not enough, then just hours before the Netanyahu-Kerry meeting last week, 16 members of Knesset — most of them from his own Likud party — sent a letter to Netanyahu urging him “not to cede any more parts of the homeland to the Palestinian Authority.” Finally, last Friday, in The New York Times, none other than Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon called to annul the Oslo Accords and dismissed the idea of a Palestinian state.

Netanyahu is approaching his moment of truth. Soon he will have to impose his will on the dissenters, or to think about alternatives. In doing so, he will have a precedent to look at: When Ariel Sharon confronted a rebellious Likud in 2005, he broke away and formed the Kadima party which enabled him to implement his disengagement plan.

This is not going to be easy for Netanyahu, because in my opinion, deep in his heart he still remains the same Netanyahu who has always opposed a Palestinian state. However, recently he started to realize what some of us realized long ago. At his Bar Ilan speech, he said: “The truth is that in the area of our homeland, in the heart of our Jewish Homeland, now lives a large population of Palestinians. We do not want to rule over them. We do not want to run their lives. We do not want to force our flag and our culture on them.”

Reluctantly, then, Netanyahu has come to the conclusion that, unlike what he had said 11 years ago, to keep saying no to a Palestinian state today means saying no to a Jewish state as well, because the alternative to a two-state solution is one, binational state, where the Jewish identity will be eroded, if not eliminated.

Netanyahu, who is one of the shrewdest politicians we ever had, probably saw this dilemma in advance, because in his government guidelines he introduced a clause conditioning a treaty with the Palestinians on a referendum. According to U.S. Ambassador Dan Shapiro the aim of the talks is to reach an agreement by the spring of 2014. By then, our prime minister will have to take the issue to the Israeli people, where in poll after poll, two out of three of us, regardless of party affiliation, steadily support a two-state solution.

By winning the referendum, or the new elections called to decide this crucial issue, the reluctant Netanyahu will emerge as the savior of the Jewish state.

Uri Dromi is executive director of the Jerusalem Press Club. This column first appeared in the Miami Herald.