Give Netanyahu a chance

As supporter of the peace movement, I believe it behooves everyone to give new PM some breathing space.

netanyahu snarls at knesset 248 88 aj (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
netanyahu snarls at knesset 248 88 aj
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Even before Binyamin Netanyahu's new government was sworn in, skeptics and pundits alike warned that he would both isolate Israel internationally and refuse to engage in good faith negotiations with either the Palestinians or the country's other neighbors. The "real aim of Israel's recently elected government is against peace" and the composition of Netanyahu's cabinet is a "clear, unsurprising message to us," Syrian President Bashar Assad declared at an Arab League summit in Qatar. Along the same lines, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas told reporters that "the Palestinians must tell the world that Netanyahu does not believe in peace, so how can we cooperate with him?" Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg lamented that "the new Israeli government does not give us much hope." And a New York Times editorial expressed concern that "Mr. Netanyahu has understandably raised alarms with the expectation that his foreign minister will be an ultranationalist leader with what are widely considered to be anti-Arab views." Much of the discussion has focused on Netanyahu's unwillingness to explicitly endorse the creation of an independent Palestinian state - something both he and his Likud Party have long opposed. But then again, so did Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni. AS A LONGTIME supporter of the Israeli peace movement, I believe that it behooves everyone to give Netanyahu some breathing space. Based on his record as prime minister in 1996-1999, he may turn out to be substantially more pragmatic and moderate than his out-of-power often rejectionist political rhetoric suggests. Clichés by definition are rooted in reality. Richard Nixon going to China, Charles de Gaulle pulling France out of Algeria and Menachem Begin giving Sinai back to Egypt have all become truisms underlying the proposition that political milestones are sometimes reached by the most unlikely protagonists. The question before us now is whether Netanyahu, flanked by Avigdor Lieberman on his Right and Ehud Barak on his Left, will emulate Begin and, for that matter, Yitzhak Rabin, or whether he will turn out to be the intransigent Yitzhak Shamir's ideological heir. Begin, it must be remembered, surrounded himself less with Greater Israel fundamentalists than with the likes of former Mapainik Moshe Dayan and future dove Ezer Weizman. In sharp contrast, Shamir steadfastly ignored the fact that he sat in a unity government with Shimon Peres as he sought to implement a largely xenophobic political agenda. It was hardly a foregone conclusion during the first intifada of 1988-89 that Rabin who, as Shamir's defense minister ordered soldiers to "break the bones" of Palestinian demonstrators, would shake Yasser Arafat's hand at the White House on September 13, 1993. And few could have foreseen in 2000 that Sharon, whose visit to the Temple Mount sparked the second intifada, would not only unilaterally disengage from Gaza but would leave the Likud with Olmert and Livni to form the centrist, diplomacy-inclined Kadima. ALTHOUGH NETANYAHU had previously denounced both Rabin's accords with the PLO and any dealings with Arafat, as prime minister he met with the PLO chairman in January 1997 at the Erez checkpoint to enter into the Hebron Agreement which provided for Israel's withdrawal from the biblical West Bank city. In October 1998, Netanyahu lunched with Arafat in Gaza before meeting with him at the Wye River Plantation in Maryland to negotiate a significant US-sponsored interim peace agreement. He then shook hands with Arafat at the signing ceremony at the White House. During those negotiations, Netanyahu associated himself with the fundamental proposition, long rejected by the Likud, that Israel must be prepared to make significant territorial compromises. Acceptance of a peace process by dovish Israelis and Palestinians is largely irrelevant. For any such process to be successful, it must have the support of precisely those Israeli and Palestinian mainstream individuals and groups most likely to doubt its feasibility. If Netanyahu had wanted to dismantle the peace process that has been in place to a greater or lesser extent for the past 15 years, he could have established a narrow coalition that catered to the ideologues of the hard-line Right. Instead, he chose to form a more centrist government that includes Barak as defense minister, with peace-oriented Labor moderates such as Isaac Herzog and Binyamin Ben-Eliezer sitting at the cabinet table. More important, Netanyahu's coalition agreement with Labor explicitly provides that his government would respect all of Israel's international agreements. I do not mean to suggest, let alone predict, that Netanyahu will become the poster child of Peace Now anytime soon. His very legitimate antagonism toward any type of terrorists makes him an unlikely interlocutor with any Palestinian entity that includes Hamas. And yet, he said in his address to the Knesset on Tuesday that he would "do everything in my power to ensure" Gilad Schalit's "speedy return, healthy and whole, to his family's bosom." Presumably, this must include negotiating, directly or indirectly, with Hamas. Once a principle is modified, not to say violated, for whatever reason, other exceptions become conceivable, even possible. Less than a week before taking office, Netanyahu told an economic conference in Jerusalem that "the Palestinians must understand that they have in our government a partner for peace, security and economic development of the Palestinian economy." If past is prologue, he may well be true to his word. He needs to be given the opportunity to prove himself. The writer is adjunct professor of law at Cornell Law School. In December 1988, he was one of five US Jews who met Yasser Arafat and other senior leaders of the PLO in Stockholm, resulting in the PLO's first public recognition of Israel.