Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's second longest-serving prime minister, knows a thing or two about peacemaking. As the leader of the opposition in the early 1990s, Netanyahu spoke fervently against then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's "surrender" to Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority, which he believed gave Israelis neither security nor peace.
For Netanyahu, the son of Zeev Jabotinsky's right-hand man and a prominent Zionist intellectual in his own right who imbibed a tough stance against Arabs, the idea of acquiescing to the presence of a non-Jewish entity west of the Jordan River (let alone one led by Arafat, an arch-terrorist throughout most of his life) was anathema.
But when Netanyahu was first elected prime minister in 1996, the Oslo peace process seemed unstoppable and he had little choice but to comply. "I found a new friend," he said of Arafat after their first meeting. Netanyahu pressed on with the peace process – he ordered the redeployment of the IDF in Hebron, in 1997 – but at a much slower pace than his predecessors in the Labor Party.
When Netanyahu returned to power in 2009, he spoke unambiguously in favor of resuming the peace process with the Palestinians. That reached its zenith in June of that year, when Netanyahu delivered the so-called Bar-Ilan speech, in which he endorsed the notion of a Palestinian state for the first time. This, together with a 10-month settlement freeze that followed soon thereafter, led many of his former detractors – including President Shimon Peres and former Prime Minister Ehud Barak - to believe that Netanyahu was willing to do whatever it takes for peace.
Netanyahu has refused to commit to the 1967 borders, and insists that the Palestinians recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people - two preconditions that Abbas refuses to accept and that have further entrenched his distrust of the Israeli premier. But the decision of Netanyahu's cabinet, on U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's behest, to free 104 Palestinian prisoners conciliated Abbas and paved the way to renewed peace talks.
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