Note the date: July 7, 2010 - the day Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the Council on Foreign Relations in New York that if the Palestinians agreed to talk to him, within a year he could reach an agreement with them. Furthermore, he said: "I am prepared to lead them a very long way to peace."
These surprising statements should be cut and pasted next to a newspaper clipping from July 7, 1996, during the beginning days of Netanyahu's first term as prime minister. Fourteen years before declaring that he'd returned to leadership "to do something as prime minister," Netanyahu said in a 1996 interview to CNN that he would surprise the world the way Menachem Begin had. That was just prior to his meeting with president Bill Clinton, in the shadow of the controversy over - what else - the settlements.
Since that time, as we know, the world has been holding its breath. True, in those days Netanyahu was saying a Palestinian state was unacceptable, while today he speaks of a two-state solution. Indeed, in July 1996 he explained that there was no value in demilitarizing Palestine because "it would be impossible to assure demilitarization after the establishment of a state," and yet now demilitarization is the key word in the prime minister's peace doctrine. Age, experience and reality sometimes result in sensational surprises. Perhaps the 2010 Netanyahu model is an improvement over the 1996 model? If only it were so.
According to the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Sanhedrin: "The judge is to be concerned only with what he actually sees with his own eyes." Similarly, political commentators can only judge by what they see and hear. Less than two weeks ago, this writer heard and wrote down statements made by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who said that during the proximity talks he had handed a very detailed document to Netanyahu on the Palestinian positions regarding borders. Abbas also said he had proposed stationing foreign forces in the areas from which Israel would withdraw, for example UNIFIL or NATO forces. The Palestinian leader told the half-dozen Israeli reporters he hosted in his office that he had proposed to Israel via special Mideast envoy George Mitchell to restart the work of the Israeli-Palestinian anti-incitement committee.
Instead of a pertinent response to his positions and proposals, Abbas received general questions, mainly procedural, that disparagingly bypassed the core issues. Netanyahu isn't interested in hearing about the Olmert-Abbas understandings, assumed under former U.S. president George W. Bush. The permanent status agreement Clinton presented in December 2000 (annexation of 4 to 6 percent of the West Bank and an exchange of territory ) matters to Netanyahu as much as the Wye River Memorandum, which he signed himself in October 1998 (the transfer of 13 percent of Area C to Palestinian civilian or general control ) and was never implemented.
To judge by statements made by U.S. President Barack Obama after his last meeting with Netanyahu, as well as during his Channel 2 interview, Obama believes "that Prime Minister Netanyahu wants peace. I think he's willing to take risks for peace" (In 1996, Bill Clinton also said he believed Netanyahu would continue the peace process ). Yet it's unclear what the president is basing his optimism on. Obama's critics contend that his warm welcome of Netanyahu conceals narrow political interests: the upcoming mid-term Congressional elections. In Israel, as we know, we don't see such things. Ehud Barak and the other members of the "club of those continuing Rabin's path" sit in Netanyahu's government out of a sincere belief that the prime minister is readying a surprise for us. Fact is, Obama did give him a little hug.
In July 1996, the day after Netanyahu visited the White House, then-opposition chairman Shimon Peres warned us not to be misled by the smiles that welcomed the prime minister.
"America is a country rich in manners," he said. "[The Americans] were promised surprises and pragmatism. There was nothing of either."
Peres said Netanyahu's policies could endanger Israel's existence, no less. Now the Nobel laureate is keeping quiet. He must also be waiting for a surprise a la Menachem Begin. Meanwhile, we're left with Likud MK Benny Begin. As long as he's sitting next to Netanyahu, forget surprises.
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now