Menachem Begin had a well-developed sense of history. Before he became prime minister, his character on the satirical show "Nikui Rosh" used to mutter, "It's now 3:05 and it's a historic moment. It's now 3:06 and it's a historic moment." As prime minister, he always spoke in the name of the Jewish people, and at every opportunity he would preach morality to non-Jews, reminding them of the Bible and the Holocaust.
But as a practical statesman, Begin knew how to distinguish between preoccupation with the past and concern for the future. In the peace talks he conducted with Egypt, he did not waste time on pointless arguments over the question of who had been the aggressor and who the victim during the decades of conflict. The peace agreement he signed with Anwar Sadat focused on the future, not the past: It determined borders, security arrangements and mechanisms for normalization.
Begin understood that in order to attend to the future, it was necessary to close the files of the past and to set priorities. He opted to obtain quiet on the Egyptian front in order to focus on what he considered more important: building settlements in the West Bank and ending the Mapai party's domination of society and the economy.
Yitzhak Rabin acted similarly. His agreements with Yasser Arafat were not intended to "do justice to the Palestinians" or to decide who was here first, we or them, but rather to quell the flames from outside in order to strengthen the country from within. Rabin wanted to devote the energy and resources that previous governments had devoted to the conflict into rebuilding crumbling infrastructure, absorbing immigrants from Russia and integrating Israel's Arab citizens.
The failure of the Oslo process and the scorn heaped on Shimon Peres' visions of a new Middle East prevented Israeli politicians from looking ahead. Why make promises and run the risk of disappointing if we can dwell on the past and live in the moment?
This week I heard radio interviews with cabinet ministers Uzi Landau and Benny Begin in which they explained their opposition to freezing settlement construction. They sounded 15 years younger, carrying on the battle against "the cancer of Oslo and its successors" (Landau ) and the speeches of Palestine Liberation Organization leaders (Begin ) as if Rabin and Peres were still in power and up-and-coming Likud politicians were still waving signs against them in city squares and at major intersections.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is no different. To this day, he has yet to explain to the public why he decided to support "two states for two peoples" and suspend building in the settlements. Both steps appear to have been nothing more than an effort to get that nuisance in the White House, Barack Obama, off his back and to gain more time in office.
Netanyahu's vision for the country's future focuses on reforming the Planning and Building Law - which undoubtedly interests him as an architect and is important to the developers, contractors and real-estate agents who will get rich off it but has no bearing on Israel's fundamental problems. And Defense Minister Ehud Barak, a key Netanyahu advisor who views himself as the authorized interpreter of the national interest, is focused on acquiring more planes for the air force and recycling old criticisms of the "deep left."
Netanyahu and Barak, Begin and Landau, are so sunk in their narrow worlds, in their desire to show that they were right and their opponents wrong, that they are ignoring the principal challenge Israel faces - the demographic change that will occur over the coming decade in this nation composed of three tribes: the ultra-Orthodox, the Arabs and the shrinking pool of all the rest of us. Quieting the external front is vital not to determine what really happened here in 1948 - independence or nakba - but to free the Israeli people to attend to the future.
Instead of wallowing in nonsense about freezing settlements for 60 or 90 days, our leaders must create the right social and economic conditions to get "all the rest of us," those who work and serve in the army, to stay and continue to build and develop the state. Defining the border with the Palestinians is essential, just as defining the border with Egypt was - not in order to silence that nudnik in Washington, but rather in order to repair our wobbling home.
The prime minister cannot control demography. But he can and should set the right order of priorities - one that focuses on integrating Arabs and the ultra-Orthodox into the labor market and on economic growth and on creating a common national denominator - instead of wasting his time in competition and arguments with Obama.
But who cares about the future when one can soften the White House's dictates a little more and gain another hour of construction in Yitzhar and in Itamar?