In the Corrals

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu began his second term with a stance of having his cake and eating it too - having America deal with the Iranian threat while Israel holds on to all the settlements.

On my desk is a newspaper clipping from September 30, 1977 describing the inauguration of Moshav Neot Sinai, between Rafah and El Arish, in a festive ceremony attended by prime minister Menachem Begin. This was the third ceremony celebrating the civilian take-over of the settlement, founded by the Israel Defense Forces Nahal Brigade, but this time there was a surprise: "Mr. Begin announced at the ceremony that when he retired from the government and public life, he would move to Moshav Neot Sinai," Haaretz's Amos Hadar reported.

The members of the Beitar youth group who moved to Moshav Neot Sinai, and the Kibbutz Movement members who came to demonstrate against them and were dispersed with tear gas, did not know that two weeks earlier, foreign minister Moshe Dayan had met in Morocco with Egyptian vice president Hassan Tohami. Their secret meeting gave rise to Anwar Sadat's visit to Jerusalem, and later the peace treaty under which Israel withdrew from Sinai. It is difficult to imagine that Begin knowingly lied to the settlers. It is more likely that he wanted to have his cake and eat it too: peace with Egypt and a retirement in Neot Sinai. But when he had to make a choice, Begin prefered peace and gave up his home in the desert, along with all the settlements Israel had built in the Sinai.

Ariel Sharon also wanted to have his cake and eat it too, when he declared that the Gaza Strip settlement of Netzarim was as important to Israel as Tel Aviv. He did not lie: He had a clear theory about the strategic importance of Netzarim, which he said would "watch over the Gaza Port." But at his moment of truth, he prefered Tel Aviv to Netzarim, and cleared out the settlements in the Gaza Strip. Before the evacuation, Sharon visited President George Bush's ranch in Texas. "Why did you decide to evacuate?" Bush asked him, and Sharon answered: "I was afraid of diplomatic plans like the Geneva Initiative." Sharon pictured the diplomatic process as a corral for bulls on their way to slaughter, which he was very familiar with as a rancher. According to his close associates, Sharon feared a forced agreement that would create a Palestinian state under adverse conditions for Israel - just as Begin feared U.S. president Jimmy Carter, who sought to get Israel out of all the territories and establish a "homeland for the Palestinians."

Like Begin, Sharon entered the corral. The moment the diplomatic process began, following his re-election in 2003, he had no way back. The only question was the price at which he could satisfy the Americans.

Begin and Sharon, who turned their backs on their positions and their previous supporters when they withdrew from Sinai and Gaza, respectively, shared several characteristics: their fear of a forced agreement, their desire to be popular among groups that had rejected them in the past, and their desire to prove that they had done no less for peace than their adversaries on the left. In both cases, the leaders claimed that by giving up less important territory, Sinai or the Gaza Strip, Israel could continue to hold more important territory in the West Bank. Both began their terms with surprising pronouncements of peace, which were initially received with disbelief and in retrospect turned out to portend their intentions.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu began his second term with a stance of having his cake and eating it too - having America deal with the Iranian threat while Israel holds on to all the settlements. Will Netanyahu be the next right-wing leader to make a political U-turn? There are signs that he will. After Begin was elected, he sent Shmuel Katz to calm the United States; Sharon sent Moshe Arens; and Netanyahu sent Shimon Peres. They explained to the Americans that the new prime minister is not the monster portrayed in the media. Peres pledged that Netanyahu wants to make history. Does that mean Netanyahu will deny his former positions, withdraw from territory and evacuate settlers?

History teaches that the answer depends on two factors: Netanyahu fearing a forced agreement, and the extent to which he wants to be liked by the center and the left, who turned their backs on him during his last term. If Barack Obama wants to pry concessions out of Netanyahu, he will have to scare him with a far-reaching diplomatic plan in order to make the prime minister choose the cheaper option and appear to have taken the initiative himself, and not to have buckled under pressure. If public opinion polls show widespread support for withdrawal, and Netanyahu senses that he is getting close to being considered a popular premier and father of the nation, he may follow Begin and Sharon's lead. Especially if he can show that his daring moves enabled Israel to hold on to more valuable assets.