There have been prime ministers who were more right-wing than Binyamin Netanyahu, yet they came around to dismantling settlements in the pursuit of peace.
Menachem Begin was one. Ariel Sharon was another. Ehud Olmert didn't achieve it, but he offered to evacuate all the settlements beyond the security fence. Yitzhak Rabin, though he was always an opponent of the "ideological settlements," likewise had to go through a political transformation before he signing the Oslo Accords with Yasser Arafat.
So is Netanyahu the latest? Is this settlement freeze a sign that he's started on the road where Begin, Rabin, Sharon and Olmert went before, that he's ready to do what's necessary to make peace even though it would mean uprooting masses of settlers?
I think the answer is no. There are fundamental differences between Begin, Rabin, Sharon and Olmert on the one hand and Netanyahu on the other. I'm not saying Netanyahu will never change, that he'll never become a peacemaker; anything's possible. But so far, the signs of sincerity and determination that were there from the beginning with Israel's previous hawks-turned-doves are absent with Netanyahu.
The most important difference is that all those previous leaders made the fundamental decision to trade land for peace of their own volition - they didn't have to be forced by the Americans, they told the Americans they were ready.
The Clinton administration learned of the first Oslo accord only after the secret Israeli-Palestinian talks succeeded. The Bush administration was informed by Sharon that he intended to withdraw from Gaza. Olmert didn't have to be pressured by any US president into formulating his "convergence plan" or going to the Annapolis talks; he'd already "crossed the Rubicon" on his own.
And while Begin didn't agree to dismantle the Sinai settlements until the very end of the Camp David talks, he gave the Egyptians his agreement in principle to trade the Sinai for peace before surprising the Carter administration with the news.
NOW LOOK at Netanyahu, Barack Obama and the settlement freeze. What does this look like? It looks like one more Made-In-America exercise that's been forced on an Israeli prime minister against his will. Before the settlement freeze there was the road map, the Madrid talks, the Mitchell Plan, the Tenet Plan, the Rogers Plan and God knows how many other American plans that some unwilling Israeli prime minister left to twist in the wind.
No US president has ever managed to impose peace on an Israeli leader who didn't want it. In light of that history, the settlement freeze fits the mold for failure perfectly.
But beyond history, beyond politics, just look at Netanyahu, just listen to him. Is this the demeanor of an Israeli nationalist who's in the throes of a political transformation, who's thinking thoughts he never thought before, who senses he can lead his country to a new destination and is determined to get there, no matter what? No matter if he ends up doing the very thing he's always denounced as national suicide? No matter if millions of Jews who've admired him come to despise him as a coward and traitor?
I wasn't here to see Begin's transformation, but I did see Rabin's, Sharon's and Olmert's, and they did not act like Netanyahu is acting now. They didn't whine that the president made them do it; they didn't promise to reverse their policy in 10 months; they didn't try to bribe or flatter the settlers into leaving them alone. They didn't apologize. They knew that trading land for peace meant going to war politically against the settler movement, that it was going to get ugly, but they were up for battle because they believed in what they were fighting for.
Is that a description of Netanyahu's behavior today? Is he acting like anyone's idea of a "warrior for peace"? He seems depressed. He looks like he's swallowing castor oil. He's bending over backward to reassure the settlers that this isn't his idea, it's Obama's, he has no choice, but once these 10 months are over he'll let them build to their heart's content - "even if [Mahmoud] Abbas declares 'peace now.'"
THE WAY he's acting, Netanyahu knows he's not going to make peace. Not only won't he dare try to evacuate masses of settlers, he won't dare try to evacuate one. In fact, he doesn't even dare try to stop the settlements from growing larger, which is why this phony "freeze" has the support of the government's biggest hawks.
The closest precedent I can think of for what Netanyahu's doing now is what he did when he was prime minister the first time, from 1996-99. He hated the Oslo Accords, but he had to pacify Bill Clinton, and he didn't want to set off another intifada, so he tried to get away with going through the motions of peacemaking. He made the absolute minimum concessions to the Palestinians so the Oslo process wouldn't collapse - just stagnate.
His problem was that even the meager concessions he made at the 1998 Wye River Conference were too much for the settlers, so they brought down his government and forced him into an election that he lost.
Neither Begin, Rabin, Sharon nor Olmert knew what it was to be driven from power by the settlers. Netanyahu knows. If he wasn't altogether traumatized by that experience, it's probably safe to say he's warier now than he was then about taking those people on.
Which is another reason not to expect peace to be made by this latest Israeli prime minister from the Right.