Op-Ed: Netanyahu can make peace when opportunity is right

NEW YORK (JTA) — In recent weeks thousands of people have been clicking onto a YouTube clip of a brash 28-year-old named “Ben Nitay” testifying in a college mock court that there is no need for a Palestinian state. Many would like to see in this old clip the current views of Israel’s new prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. However, as Ariel Sharon once said regarding his own transformation from critic to prime minster, “What one can’t see from ‘there,’ one sees very clearly from ‘here.’ ”

That said, it’s time to take a closer look into the full record of Netanyahu’s positions when he was actually prime minister and then a minister in Sharon’s government.

Netanyahu’s previous term as prime minister a decade ago, from 1996 to 1999, is remembered bitterly by many in the national camp and the settler movement. He had campaigned for office in the spring of 1996 as a vigorous opponent of the Oslo Accords, but shortly after becoming prime minister in June, he signed an agreement to withdraw from 80 percent of Hebron and roll back Israel’s presence in the West Bank in three further redeployments. Here he was on Jan. 15, 1997, seven months into his term, being photographed shaking the hand of Yasser Arafat, witnessed by U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher, against the opposition of half his Cabinet.

A year and a half later, on Oct. 23, 1998, Netanyahu reached out to Arafat, this time in the company of President Clinton on the White House lawn, signing the Wye River Memorandum in which he agreed to withdraw the Israel Defense Forces from 13.1 percent of the disputed territory and give the PLO a measure of control over 41 percent of the West Bank and 80 percent of Gaza.

Yossi Ben Aharon, a prominent figure on Israel’s right, accused Netanyahu of a “great betrayal … of the Jewish inhabitants of Judea, Samaria and Gaza,” taking “a significant step toward solidifying the sovereignty of [a Palestinian] state.” Former Likud Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir called Netanyahu a “traitor to the nationalist movement.”

Yossi Beilin, an icon of the left, also saw the importance of Netanyahu’s decision, but from the opposing point of view. Beilin said Netanyahu “gave [right-wing] legitimacy … to the peace process, to the idea of territorial concessions, to the PLO and to Arafat."

Netanyahu actualized the national consensus of which Yitzhak Rabin could only dream. The Knesset had approved Rabin’s Oslo I and II accords by the narrowest of margins, 61-60 and 61-59, but it overwhelmingly endorsed Netanyahu’s Hebron agreement, 87-17.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said in 1999, “Our differences of opinion with Netanyahu are not about whether or not there will be a Palestinian state but about what its size and borders will be. That is the truth."

During his term as prime minister, Netanyahu also took bold steps on the Syrian front. In 1998, in August and September, he authorized businessman Ronald Lauder to conduct secret negotiations with Assad, agreeing to extensive territorial concessions on the Golan Heights. Dennis Ross says Netanyahu authorized "withdrawal to a commonly agreed border based on the June 4, 1967 lines."

Netanyahu says he agreed "to make concessions in the Golan … setting the border ‘kilometers’ from the Sea of Galilee." Either way, it was not what those who saw Netanyahu as an ideological opponent of territorial compromise expected.

Later, as finance minister under Sharon, Netanyahu voted four times in favor of the historic decision to withdraw all 8,000 Jewish settlers and all Israeli soldiers from Gaza, first in a Cabinet vote on June 6, 2004 and then in Knesset votes on Oct. 26, 2004 and Feb. 16 and March 28, 2005. Subsequently, Netanyahu split with Sharon and opposed implementation of the disengagement plan, but his objections could hardly be described as opposition to the basic principle of withdrawal.

A few weeks ago, Netanyahu noted to the Washington Post that “I’m the person who did the Wye agreement and the Hebron agreement in the search for peace.”

Netanyahu in principle is not opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state. Like the majority of the Israeli public, he believes that "Any Palestinian state that would be formed under the current conditions would become an Iranian state as we saw happen in Gaza." But this objection is based on observed Palestinian behavior rather than principled opposition to statehood.

When Netanyahu — and the Israeli public — are persuaded that a real opportunity for peace exists, the record shows they will seize the opportunity.

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