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Commentary: 'Now' is not now for Netanyahu

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Every man has a father and Binyamin Netanyahu's is worth knowing. He is Benzion Netanyahu, born 101 years ago in what was soon to become Poland and living now in what has become Israel. He is a historian by profession, the author of a mammoth and well-respected book on the Spanish Inquisition and, most pertinent to today's events, the former secretary to Ze'ev Jabotinsky, a militant Zionist leader whose credo, when it came to the Arabs, could be summarized as: Do nothing. Binyamin Netanyahu is doing precisely that.

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Jabotinsky was an organizer, a soldier, a writer and, like most great men, a journalist. His most famous -- and influential -- essay was titled "The Iron Wall" and, although it was published in 1923, some of it is still timely. It is an eminently practical document that begins with an acknowledged diversion: "First: the expulsion of the Arabs from Palestine is absolutely impossible in any form." And, second, "I am prepared to swear, for us and our descendants, that we ... will never attempt to expel or oppress the Arabs." Then, as we might put it today, Jabotinsky said that the ball was in the Arabs' court.

It was up to the Arabs, he wrote, to come to terms with Zionism -- the creation of a Jewish state. He was unapologetic about Jewish rights and demands, and until the Arabs recognized those rights and agreed to those demands, the Jews would remain behind an "iron wall." Sooner or later, the Arabs would tire of their militancy and a moderate leadership would emerge. Then Jew and Arab could do business.

The trouble with Netanyahu is that, for him, "now" is not now. A moderate and pragmatic Palestinian leadership has actually emerged in the West Bank, terrorism has been denounced, rejected and, in the West Bank, all but disappeared. A Palestinian state in some sort of pupa form is taking shape, even able to police itself. The trumpeted unification of Fatah and Hamas is indeed a problem, but where there's a will there's a way.

In two recent speeches, Barack Obama assured Israel that he is its champion. This has been in considerable doubt, but in talking to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Obama did everything but plant a tree in Israel. He affirmed its right to be the Jewish homeland, denounced Hamas and insisted that "the current situation in the Middle East does not allow for procrastination." As far as Obama is concerned, "now" is now.

As it happens, this is more or less the conclusion that Dov Weissglass has reached. Weissglass was Ariel Sharon's chief of staff and his credentials as a hard-liner cannot therefore be challenged. Yet, he too thinks the current leadership of the Palestinian Authority "is the best leadership it has had from Israel's perspective ever since the PA was formed."

I can understand Netanyahu's reluctance to move off the dime. The Arab world is in flux. The region may not be getting ahead of history but returning to it. It could be a swell time to do nothing.

Jabotinsky was a man of action. But he was also, as Binyamin Netanyahu once told the Knesset, "one of the intellectual giants in the annals of Zionism." It is always foolish to say what a dead man would have wanted, yet he certainly might have noticed that time has not only moved on but, as Obama pointed out, it is no longer on Israel's side. The occupied West Bank is a looming demographic disaster and the world has embraced the Palestinian cause. Today's moderate Palestinian leadership may disappear tomorrow and the 1967 borders are no less defensible than the current ones -- missiles and rockets do not pause for barbed wire. A doctrine enunciated in 1923 is out of date. You cannot build an iron wall high enough anymore.

Richard Cohen's e-mail address is opinion@wctrib.com.

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