Perhaps Bennie Begin was right after all when he said that Binyamin Netanyahu had changed over the past decade. The often hesitant Netanyahu of the past nine months bears little resemblance to the impulsive Bibi of old, while the prime minister's major policy announcements are tantamount, at least at first glance, to a rejection of his previously deeply held beliefs.
Last week's security cabinet decision to announce a 10-month freeze on private building in the West Bank certainly marks a declarative change of direction for Netanyahu, who until now had steadfastly insisted that he would not halt "natural growth" construction in the settlements. Coupled with his Bar-Ilan speech in which he became the first right-wing leader to utter the words "two states for two peoples," the Likud leader has now gone down in history as the first prime minister, from any party, to order a settlement freeze in the West Bank.
Interestingly, Netanyahu has not received a thing from the Palestinians in return. The "reciprocity" mantra of his first term in office has disappeared as Israel finds itself making unilateral concessions to the Palestinians to stave off an increasingly hostile international diplomatic environment.
And in between recognizing the Palestinian right to statehood and freezing Jewish construction in the West Bank, Netanyahu has also been negotiating a prisoner exchange with Hamas for Gilad Schalit, agreeing, as far as one can tell, to the serial release of deadly terrorists, responsible for the murder of hundreds of Israelis, and proving more flexible in his determination to get a deal than Ehud Olmert during his final days in office.
This particular surrender to terrorism is definitely not reminiscent of the young Netanyahu, who first came to fame as an anti-terror expert. While Israel's ambassador to the UN in 1985, Netanyahu wrote to foreign minister Yitzhak Shamir complaining that the Jibril deal, in which 1,150 Palestinian detainees were released in return for three IDF soldiers, would only endanger the lives of more Israelis in the future.
A decade later, in his book A Place Under the Sun, Netanyahu joined those who argued that this prisoner release helped spark the flames of the first intifada that broke out a couple of years later.
It's hard to know how Netanyahu justifies his change of approach to a prisoner release because he has successfully avoided discussing the Schalit case. In this, he has been helped by the heavy-handed use of military censorship to prevent details of which Palestinian terrorists stand to regain their freedom, which has further dampened any public discussion of the deal.
BUT HAS Netanyahu really changed as some media commentators insist or, particularly with regard to the peace process, is he just seeking to buy time and appease Washington - not the Palestinians - by minor gestures? Again, it's worth looking at what MK Begin has to say and he is undoubtedly right when he notes that the 10-month settlement freeze will not change the reality of construction work in the West Bank in any meaningful way.
The settlers knew what was coming and prepared accordingly. According to Defense Ministry data, around 2,500 housing units are presently under construction and so will not be affected by the freeze, which only refers to new building starts. On top of this, Defense Minister Ehud Barak recently approved the construction of another 490 units, which will also escape the freeze. The security cabinet's decision also permits the building of public facilities such as schools and synagogues, as opposed to private housing, and almost immediately after the security cabinet vote, Barak authorized the construction of 28 new public facilities in the settlements.
So, as Begin said in a television interview following Netanyahu's announcement, whoever thinks he won't be seeing tractors and bulldozers working in Judea and Samaria over the next 10 months is deluding himself. Furthermore, east Jerusalem, the most sensitive of all areas in the territories, has not been included in the settlement freeze.
BEGIN IS a rarity in Israeli politics, a true man of principle. If he could bring himself to vote in favor, and later enthusiastically defend, a cabinet decision announcing a settlement freeze, it's clear that he does not view this decision as weakening Jewish settlement in the West Bank in any substantive manner. Ten months, as Begin further remarked, is not a particularly long period of time, and after this date the government is not committed to anything.
Netanyahu has shown great political skill in establishing and maintaining his coalition, but he is still failing to communicate exactly where this government is heading. If he was that anxious to kick-start the peace process with the Palestinians, there was no need for him to have waited this long before announcing a settlement freeze.
Imagine how much stronger the impact of his Bar-Ilan speech would have been had he announced then his support for a two-state solution, coupled with a freeze on all settlement construction. Such a speech would not have left him in the position he found himself earlier this month, begging for a White House meeting.
But given that Netanyahu is not explaining himself to the Israeli people, it seems that we will have to use Bennie Begin as the bellwether of the prime minister's intentions. And as long as Begin is in the government, one can conclude that Netanyahu is not serious about reaching a deal with the Palestinians based on two states for two people.
The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.