By Rael Jean Isaac
One of the most widely accepted misconceptions concerning the Arab-Israel conflict (a subject awash in misconceptions) is that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a “hard-core right-winger.” There is nothing in his behavior as prime minister from his first years in that office (1997-99) or in his more recent period in that office, beginning in 2009, to support this belief. On the contrary, like his predecessors, he has made repeated dramatic territorial and other concessions, including acceptance of the so-called “two-state solution.”
In Jan. 1997, still in the first year of his first term, he signed the Hebron Protocol with the Palestine Authority, turning over most of Hebron, after Jerusalem the most important city in Jewish history, to the PA. Netanyahu did so little to change Labor’s disastrous post-Oslo policy that erstwhile supporter Benny Begin (Menachem’s son) derided him at a Likud Party meeting in March of that year. “Arafat releases terrorists and so does Israel. Arafat smuggles in weapons and we give him assault rifles to round off his stores… We have government offices in Jerusalem [supposedly the unified capital of Israel] and so do they.” The following year, under President Clinton’s prodding, Netanyahu signed the Wye River Memorandum in which he promised to turn over 40% of Judea and Samaria to Arafat, a safe corridor between these areas and Gaza, even an airport in Gaza. It’s true Wye was not implemented, but that’s only because (predictably) Arafat promptly reneged on his commitments under the agreement.
That same year, Netanyahu embarked on secret negotiations with Syria in which he offered to return the Golan Heights. Was Netanyahu prepared to go back to the 1967 border (which Clinton and Dennis Ross assert in their respective memoirs) or did Netanyahu, according to other reports, hold out for several kilometers beyond the international border line? Although Assad backed out, according to widespread reports in the Israeli press, in 2010 Netanyahu tried again, this time with Bashar Assad, offering to return to the June 4, 1967 lines. Fortunately, the negotiations collapsed with the onset of the rebellion against the Syrian ruler. (One shudders to think what “success” would have meant for Israel, with Hizb’allah and/or ISIS embedded on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.)
That near miss with disaster has not prevented Netanyahu from continuing to offer major concessions. In the wake of Obama’s Cairo speech, Netanyahu agreed to adopt the “two-state solution” as his government’s policy. Moreover, retired Brigadier General Michael Herzog (brother of Israeli Labor Party head Yitzhak Herzog), who has participated in almost all Israel’s peace negotiations since Oslo in 1993, writes in The American Interest that Netanyahu in the Obama years offered such large withdrawals that he could not admit their scale to the Israeli public or his coalition partners.
And contrary to the widespread perception, fostered by the media, that Netanyahu has peppered the landscape of Judea and Samaria with Jewish settlements, Israel has not built a new settlement in 25 years. The much publicized on and off settlement freezes to which Netanyahu has agreed applied to existing communities, the “freezes” meaning there was no building even to accommodate natural population growth within them.
So what accounts for Netanyahu’s reputation as an unbudging hawk? The reason is that he knows better than he acts, with the result that his rhetoric differs from his policies far more than has been the case with other Israeli leaders. Prime Minister Shimon Peres seems clearly to have believed in the mirage he concocted of a New Middle East. Prime Minister Olmert appears to have genuinely felt the emotions which in 2005 (in a speech to the Israel Policy Forum) he attributed to the people of Israel as a whole: “We are tired to fighting; we are tired of being courageous; we are tired of winning; we are tired of defeating our enemies.”
But Netanyahu sounds very different. He has a long history of realism about the Arab-Israel conflict. As far back as 1978, fifteen years before Oslo, Netanyahu went to what remains the heart of the matter: “The real cause of the conflict is the Arab refusal to accept the state of Israel.” In a January 28, 1985 interview with the New York Post, Netanyahu, then Israel’s UN ambassador, said of Judea and Samaria: “We’re not going to survive if we get out of that territory -- we’ll die.” In September 1993, as Oslo was being celebrated by a country dizzy with the hopes for peace Rabin and Peres had promised, Netanyahu addressed Peres in the Knesset: “You are much worse than [British Prime Minister Neville] Chamberlain, because Chamberlain threatened the security and freedom of another nation, while you are threatening the security and freedom of your own.” One could go on and on quoting from Netanyahu’s eloquent speeches, articles, books, and interviews focusing on the delusory premises and devastating consequences of the so-called “peace process.” Obama’s betrayal at the UN, orchestrating Resolution 2334 in the last days of his administration, provoked Netanyahu into a fresh burst of honesty as he declared that the PA had no intention of living beside Israel but was determined to replace it.
The fact that Netanyahu obviously comprehends and is able to articulate Israel’s situation so well -- along with his genuine success in pushing through economic reforms that have propelled Israel from socialist basket case to technological powerhouse -- have won him considerable wiggle room with those who might normally be expected to sharply criticize his policies. But even his long-time staunch defender Caroline Glick has balked at Netanyahu’s most recent failure of political courage and resolve, arguing that if you refuse to act on your knowledge of the enemy, you will lose your war against him. Glick observes that “it is deeply destructive for Israel to continue paying lip service to the fake peace process. And yet, that is precisely what Prime Minister Netanyahu is doing.” In Glick’s view the advent of Trump, well-disposed toward Israel and the first president in decades not wedded to the delusory two-state solution, offered Netanyahu an opportunity to explain why it could not succeed and an alternative approach was essential -- and he had squandered it.
If there are two Netanyahus, complicating matters further, there are also two President Trumps. In striking contrast to Obama, the first Trump, in word and deed, is strongly supportive of Israel. Early on, Trump departed from precedent in stating that he did not think Israeli settlements were a barrier to peace. In the transition period before taking the oath of office, at Netanyahu’s request, Trump sought to derail Obama’s farewell assault on Israel at the UN by persuading Egypt’s al Sisi, who had officially proposed the anti-Israel resolution, to withdraw it. (Obama promptly found other sponsors for his knife in Israel’s back Resolution 2334, so it passed anyway.) Trump promised to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and although he has not fulfilled the promise thus far, he seems to have genuinely wanted to do so. When Trump met with Netanyahu on February 15 at the White House, he suggested he would not be bound by the past sacrosanct allegiance to the two-state solution: “I’m looking at two state and one state formulations.”
Newly appointed ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley blew such a breath of fresh air into its see-no-evil-but-Israel culture that the New York Sun dubbed her Haley’s Comet. She denounced the obsession with attacking Israel and declared the U.S. would cease any participation in the UN Human Rights Council until it cleaned up its act. The Washington Free Beacon quotes a senior administration official calling the Human Rights Council “morally bankrupt” and saying “We’ve wasted enough time and money on it.”
Trump appointed two strong supporters of Israel (including the much-maligned settlements) to prominent positions, David Friedman as ambassador to Israel and Jason Greenblatt as Special Envoy for International Negotiations. Indeed, Friedman was such a strong supporter that he set off a strong effort among such anti-Israel Jewish groups as J Street to block his appointment in Congress.
However, there are worrisome signs of a second Donald Trump. On Nov. 22, 2016, not long after his election, in an interview with New York Times editors, he said “I would love to be the one who made peace with Israel and the Palestinians. That would be such a great achievement.” He proposed sending his Jewish son-in-law Jared Kushner to lay the groundwork. And on Feb. 15, at the White House, after the words quoted above “I’m looking at two state and one state formulations” he added “I’m very happy with the one both parties like.” All this suggests a dangerous ignorance about the nature of the Arab-Israel conflict. There is no conceivable formulation Kushner or anyone else can come up that “both sides like” because Abbas and the PA want to replace Israel, not live in peace beside it.
Trump’s willingness to live with expanded Israeli building activities in Judea and Samaria seems to be evaporating as well. He sent Greenblatt to Jerusalem to inform Netanyahu that Trump would support construction in Jerusalem but wanted a quota on new building inside major Jewish communities beyond the old Green Line and no new construction in “isolated West Bank settlements.” This would force Netanyahu to renege on his promise to build a new settlement for the evacuees of the now destroyed (thanks to a ruling by Israel’s Supreme Court) community of Amona. According to Daniel Horowitz in Conservative Review, the pressure is so strong Netanyahu has held off on his plans to fully annex Ma’ale Adumim, the largest suburb of Jerusalem.
Trump has also “balanced” his pro-Israel appointments with anti-Israel officials. He has retained Yael Lempert, regarded as one of the most radically anti-Israel individuals in the anti-Israel Obama administration, as the person responsible for Israeli-Palestinian issues on the National Security Council. He has retained Michael Ratney, former U.S. consul in Jerusalem, to head the Israeli-Palestinian desk at the State Department. Ratney, according to the Times of Israel, oversaw a program “in effect setting up an armed Palestinian militia in the consulate.” Typifying this “balanced” approach, Trump sent Lempert to accompany Greenblatt in meeting with Abbas and pressuring Israel.
It’s too early to know how the multifaceted collision between the two Netanyahus and two Trumps will turn out. But one thing is certain: no genuine peace lies at the end of the road.