Opinion |

Begin and My Father Had the Courage to Be Real Leaders. Netanyahu Hasn't

It was a Likud government in 1979 that endorsed a return to the 1967 borders in the context of the Camp David Accords. But in today's Israel, the right-wing is rewriting, forgetting and distorting this history.

Yuval Rabin.
Yuval Rabin
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Mourning Israelis stand next to a memorial at the site of Yitzhak Rabin's assassination in Tel Aviv, Israel, November 7, 1995.
Mourning Israelis stand next to an informal memorial headlined with the words "the incitement continues" at the site of Yitzhak Rabin's assassination in Tel Aviv, Israel, November 7, 1995.Credit: Sven Nackstrand, AFP
Yuval Rabin.
Yuval Rabin

Israel, under a succession of right-wing governments, has undergone a transformation that relies substantially on the rewriting of history, distorting established facts and removing verified information from our collective memory.

This alternative reality in Israel's public discourse is most evident regarding the facts of the 1993 Oslo Accords, especially on issues concerning the Palestinians. We need to remind ourselves of the facts.

In the interests of accuracy and perspective, the Oslo interim accords did not deviate from the right-wing Likud's endorsement of the 1979 “Framework for Peace in the Middle East,” better known as the Camp David Accords, in which Israel agreed to withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza. The main points: Establishing a strong, local police force and agreeing to a five-year transitional period during which Israeli, Jordanian, Palestinian and Egyptian representatives would discuss a permanent agreement.

Israel also agreed that the principles laid down with the Egyptians would also apply to Israel’s relationship with all its neighbors: Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. This part of the agreement was never implemented due to Palestinian and Jordanian objections. But Israel’s undertaking – made, to reiterate, under a Likud government – to return to the 1967 borders and to withdraw its military forces, remains a valid commitment today.

The key principles of the interim arrangements between Israel and the Palestinians of the 1990s mirrored those agreed with Egypt at Camp David. However, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was concerned about various loopholes in the 1979 agreement and asked his legal adviser to the talks with the Palestinians, Joel Singer, to prevent any similar glitches.

Obama watches Prime Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian President Abbas as they shake hands at a trilateral meeting at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York, Sept. 25, 2009.Credit: Bloomberg

In contrast with the agreement with Egypt, in the interim agreements with the Palestinians, Israel averted the establishment of an international arbitration mechanism, maintained authority over the territories and avoided the principle of a full return to the 1967 borders – the key Arab achievement of the talks with Egypt. As a result, subsequent Israeli governments were dealt powerful cards to play in the negotiations on a permanent Israeli-Palestinian agreement. Netanyahu’s government continues to play these cards, albeit for other purposes.

The main innovation and achievement of the Oslo process was the Palestine Liberation Organization’s recognition of Israel and its agreement – later to be breached – to relinquish the armed struggle. In exchange, Israel acknowledged the PLO as the sole representative of the Palestinian people. This recognition was the outcome of King Hussein’s conceding the West Bank after the Likud undermined the London Agreement – another fact that has been forgotten.

In the 1990s, just like today, Israel had no partner for negotiations other than the PLO, despite the problematic relationship with them.

Rabin realized that Israel could not continue to control the Palestinians and that the only option was an agreed diplomatic solution. His government’s perception was that terrorism should be fought as if there was no peace process, while the peace process should be continued as if there was no terrorism.

This perception was openly mocked at the time, and during Benjamin Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister the negotiations with the Palestinians were discontinued. Later it was Netanyahu who resumed the talks – and actually shook Arafat’s hand – following the 1996 Western Wall Tunnel incidents. Since then, Netanyahu has become an advocate of negotiations and has even insisted that Mahmoud Abbas enter into direct negotiations immediately, terrorism or no terrorism.

It is both sad and ironic to see Likud’s defense and public security ministers declaring daily that “there are no magic solutions” for the Palestinian issue, after decades of attacking the Zionist left and the Labor Party for saying exactly the same thing. But the truth is that there really are no magic solutions. Israel rules over two million Palestinians, and the situation in Gaza is very unstable. The Palestinian public is influenced by developments in the Arab world, and are more motivated than ever to change their situation.

The “regional peace” of the Netanyahu government won't come to anything unless the government also pursues negotiations with the Palestinians. Moreover, the Egyptian president, Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi, might in a year or two join the long list of world leaders disillusioned with Netanyahu, when he realizes that no progress has been made.

It is time for the pragmatic forces on the right and left to confront the extremists in Israel's government and to present a realistic political policy, one that could transform Israeli power and Arab weakness into opportunity – an interim or permanent agreement on favorable terms – instead the exploitation of asymmetric power to maintain the current situation. It is also time Israeli leaders stop deluding the Israeli public into thinking that political stability and security can be attained without compromises or concessions.

When he signed the Camp David accords with Egypt, Menachem Begin understood that progress in relations with Egypt and the Palestinians would mean normalization between Israel and the Arab world. If Netanyahu really wants to get closer to Cairo he must follow in Begin’s footsteps. Perhaps he already realizes this, but, in contrast to Begin and Rabin, has not yet found the courage that true leadership requires to make real political change.

Yuval Rabin is the founder of the Israeli Peace Initiative and honorary chairman of the Yitzhak Rabin Foundation.

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