ANALYSIS: Who is the new Netanyahu?

Likud leader and soon-to-be Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu likes to tell a story about an encounter last summer with US President Barack Obama, reports the New York Times:

“You and I have a lot in common,” Mr. Obama said, according to Mr. Netanyahu’s account. “I started on the left and moved to the center. You started on the right and moved to the center. We are both pragmatists who like to get things done.”

Whether Netanyahu has indeed grown more pragmatic remains to be seen. The policy problems looming on his desk include increasingly fruitful talks with Syria, fears of an Iranian nuclear weapon, and cleaning up the previous government’s war in the Gaza Strip. The Times Online reports:

On reaching office, however, Netanyahu will be presented with reports compiled by Mossad, the overseas spy agency, and by military intelligence, that strongly advocate opening negotiations with President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.

According to sources familiar with the documents, both Amos Yadlin, the head of military intelligence, and Meir Dagan, his Mossad counterpart, recommend a deal not only to eliminate the risk of war with Syria but also to create a split between Damascus and Iran, Israel’s arch foe.

A United Nations report last week said Iran had accumulated a stockpile of more than one ton of low-enriched uranium hexafluoride at its nuclear facility in Natanz. If highly enriched this would be enough for a nuclear weapon.

Intelligence analysts say no Israeli government could accept a nuclear-armed Iran. But if it came to a showdown Israel would want Syria, which has close ties to Iran, to stay neutral. It also wants Syria to stop supplying arms to Hezbollah, the Islamic political and paramilitary group in Lebanon.

Israel has recently violated Syrian sovereignty on three occasions: with the assassination of Imad Mughniyeh, a Hezbollah leader, in Damascus last February; the killing of a Syrian general, Mohammed Suleiman, near the Syrian port of Tartous last August; and a raid on an alleged nuclear facility in September 2007.

The reports argue that Israel is vulnerable to Syria’s upgraded chemical weapons capability, which is being expanded with the help of North Korean experts. Satellite images that emerged last week showed new construction work at the heavily protected site of al-Safir.

Netanyahu served as prime minister between 1996 and 1999, vigorously pursuing Israel’s settlement project in the West Bank and stalling negotiations with Palestinians.