Netanyahu: Then and Now


When Benjamin Netanyahu became Prime Minister in 1996, he ran on a platform dedicated to ending the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. That is what he said in Israel. For U.S. consumption, Netanyahu took a different approach, seeking instead to unilaterally alter the terms of the process. He rejected the "land for peace" formula, replacing it with "security for peace" (emphasizing Israeli security, while promising only economic improvements to the Palestinians). Netanyahu also imposed new parameters for judging Palestinian performance, focusing on "Palestinian incitement" (ignoring the fact that Leah Rabin, widow of assassinated Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin, held Netanyahu, and his ilk, responsible for the incitement that inflamed passions leading to her husband’s murder).

Throughout his troubled tenure as Prime Minister, Netanyahu’s wily intransigence frustrated President Clinton’s efforts to salvage a failing peace process. But, Clinton could also be wily. Despite having made a campaign pledge that he would not publicly pressure Israel, Clinton, nevertheless, found subtle, but real, ways to do just that.

On one occasion, for example, both Clinton and Netanyahu were in Los Angeles at the same time, with Clinton refusing to meet him. Instead, the President flew back to Washington to convene a White House meeting of Arab Americans and American Jewish leaders to award "The Rabin Peace Prize" to the man Netanyahu had defeated, Shimon Peres. Message sent.

On another occasion, at a State Dinner in Jerusalem, Netanyahu used his toast to rather undiplomatically chastise Clinton reminding him that Gaza and Bethlehem (where Clinton was scheduled to go the next day) were also Jewish places. Clinton rose in response and quite nicely shot back at the Prime Minister – to the surprise and, I must say, delight, of his Israeli audience!

Some analysts point to Netanyahu’s endorsement of the Wye Agreement as a sign of his flexibility, claiming that it was the first time any Likud leader had signed an agreement with the PLO. But, on closer examination, despite the extraordinary effort made by the U.S. to achieve this agreement, it was, at best, flawed and tortured. Hanan Ashrawi called Wye "a compromise of a compromise of a compromise," noting that instead of advancing the peace process, the agreement distorted it and set the process back.

It is also important to recall that, while the ink was still drying on the Wye Agreement, Ariel Sharon (then Infrastructure Minister in Netanyahu’s government), called on his followers to go into the West Bank and seize as much land as possible. They did so, and established, with Netanyahu’s acquiescence, dozens of "illegal" outposts. Despite repeated Israeli pledges to remove these outposts, they have grown in number (now almost 100) and size.

In 1999, plagued both by scandal and the Israeli public’s concern that he was alienating the U.S., Netanyahu was defeated. Though he had not ended the peace process, he had succeeded in radically transforming it, leaving it deformed and lifeless. He left office with a legacy of expanded settlements (including a massive expansion around Jerusalem), dozens of extremist settler outposts firmly in place, and broken trust and bitterness all around.

Now he’s back, still playing the same tunes as before. While affirming, for public consumption, that he will be a "partner for peace" (because he knows that the U.S. requires this), he will not commit to two states or "land for peace." Much like Hamas, he affirms that he will "respect" prior agreements, but refrains from saying that he will "abide" by their terms. He will not discuss Jerusalem or any other "final status" issues – promising only to pursue economic development and security agreements with the Palestinians.

Those who see hope in the fact that the Labor Party has now joined Netanyahu’s coalition fail to understand that this was simply a desperate move by Ehud Barak, who sought more to save his job as Defense Minister than to influence the course of what is, at the end of the day, an overwhelmingly right wing government.

Netanyahu has not changed. But all is not lost. In fact, the situation will only be problematic if the U.S. remains passive – which is what President Obama, Secretary Clinton, and Senator Mitchell have said they will not do. Mitchell has dealt with the likes of Ian Paisley. And, as he has noted in his analysis of the Irish peace process:

[I]t’s hard to stop a war if you don’t talk with those who are involved in it. To be sure, their participation will likely slow things down and, for a time, block progress. But their endorsement can give the process and its outcome far greater legitimacy and support. Better they become participants than act as spoilers. Sometimes it is necessary to take a step backwards in order to take several forward.

Left to their own devices, a Netanyahu-led government and a fractured Palestinian polity cannot make peace. But U.S. leadership and pressure can play a transformative role in reshaping Israeli and Palestinian politics.

It may be, as in Ireland, that a hard-line Israeli coalition and a Palestinian unity government that includes Hamas elements are the necessary preconditions to for a real peace process to work. While Olmert and Abbas may have been able to reach a meeting of the minds, they could not deliver an agreement. This more complex situation may be the step backward which enables forward movement in the peace process. It won’t be easy; but, then, peace-making never is.