Elections Before the End of 2008

What would the public say if Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu had left a meeting with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas yesterday declaring that prosperity and peace go hand in hand?

What would the public say if Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu had left a meeting with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas yesterday and declared that "prosperity and peace go hand in hand ... We will prove to all those who thought that we couldn't that we are capable of making peace, and we will disappoint everyone who didn't believe it ... We don't want to break up the agreement. On the contrary: We came to advance it. We will advance on all the issues to which we committed ourselves, including negotiations on a final-status agreement."

And what if Netanyahu had then promised, "Decisions on establishing settlements will be made only after the map of the final-status agreement has been settled, when Israel's security zones and areas of settlement in the West Bank have been clarified"?

It did not happen yesterday, nor did it happen at the end of a meeting between Abbas and opposition leader Netanyahu. However, all the rest is accurate. That is what then-prime minister Netanyahu said following a meeting at the White House with then-PA chairman Yasser Arafat in late 1996.

A columnist for Yedioth Ahronoth announced the "love story" in red letters. And that was not all. In October 1998, after signing the Wye Agreement, which dealt with implementing the Interim Agreement (specifically, territorial redeployments), Netanyahu shook Arafat's hand at length, to cries of acclaim from the crowd.

Then-U.S. president Bill Clinton said he wished all those present could have seen Netanyahu and Arafat together as he did. "I can't imagine Mr. Netanyahu in a kaffiyeh, but they were very much alike in their tenacity and their astonishing intelligence and knowledge," he said. Arafat thanked Netanyahu for agreeing to release hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, and termed him "my partner in a peace of the brave."

Would such hymns to peace in Netanyahu's mouth convince the "peace camp" that the man who established East Jerusalem's Har Homa neighborhood and violated the Wye Agreement had repented? Would Ehud Olmert's fans on the Zionist left believe that Netanyahu had changed his spots?

Why not? If they believe that Olmert has moved left, why not believe that his brother in the Fighting Family would also veer that way after returning to the Prime Minister's Office?

Unlike Olmert, who has thus far mainly given Abbas empty words, barren meetings and a handful of prisoners, Netanyahu gave Arafat the Hebron Agreement, which opened the city's Shuhada Street and allowed Palestinian policemen to bear arms. He even gave up his slogan of "if they give, they will get" (a demand for the extradition of Palestinians who murdered Jews and the annulment of the Palestinian covenant), and lost then-Likud MK Benny Begin.

"Had the election results dictated that Shimon Peres would be the one to remove Israel Defense Forces soldiers from Hebron," wrote a Haaretz editorial at the time, "Netanyahu would presumably have led the protest activity against the government. Netanyahu's consistent reservations about the Oslo Accord and his criticism for it give redoubled force to his decision to implement the article on Hebron."

Even in the opposition, Netanyahu has shown signs of sobering up from being drunk on power. In the speech he delivered to the Herzliya Conference two years ago, he promised that if elected prime minister, he would strive for negotiations with "a Palestinian partner who renounces terror and fights it."

He spoke of a desire to achieve a "separation" between the two peoples, and promised to reduce the number of roadblocks and dismantle illegal settlement outposts. Like Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, he proposed a final-status agreement that would leave Israel with "the large settlement blocs" and "greater Jerusalem," as well as security control over the Jordan Valley and the Modi'in Highway (Route 443).

Were it not for the fear of bringing Netanyahu to power, it seems doubtful that Olmert would have managed to pass through the Winograd Report without getting wet. Excluding Sabbaths, holidays and trips abroad, he has little time left to fulfill his Annapolis promise to "work determinedly to reach an agreement before the end of 2008."

The end of 2008 is a good time for new elections. If by then Olmert has achieved an agreement on dividing the land, and Jerusalem, he will have to take it to the voters in any case. If it turns out that the government's most prominent achievements are a failed war against Hezbollah in Lebanon and helplessness in the face of Hamas in Gaza, then every additional day will only increase the right's strength.

In a good-case scenario, Netanyahu in power would unite what remains of the Israeli left and repair the damage that Olmert and Ehud Barak have done to the "peace camp." In the best-case scenario, he would prove that only the right can make peace.