Netanyahu, Then and Now

As Israelis and Palestinians embark on a new round of peace talks, critics of Benjamin Netanyahu have expressed doubt that the Israeli prime minister, once a leading opponent of the Oslo Accords, can change his ways. On Monday, Israeli deputy transportation minister Tzipi Hotovely, a member of the prime minister’s Likud party, wrote that “Netanyahu will not offer the Palestinians more than his predecessors, Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak, so it is just a matter of time before these peace talks deadlock as well.”

Similarly, in an interview with Israeli army radio last year, Secretary of State John Kerry’s newly appointed special envoy to the talks, Martin Indyk, based his pessimism about the chance of peace on the identity of the Israeli government, which grew only more conservative following the election last January: “the heart of the matter is that the maximum concessions that this government of Israel would be prepared to make fall far short of the minimum requirements that [Abbas] will insist on.”

Yet the presumed reticence of Netanyahu and his government to match the offers of their predecessors is among the weaker reasons to doubt Kerry will reach his stated goal of ending the conflict. Firmer ground for skepticism can be found in Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s loss of control of Gaza to Hamas and his inability to bring about a referendum on a peace agreement within it; the great uncertainty that Israelis and Palestinians would approve a deal that ignores or contradicts core elements of their narratives, which are founded not on Israel’s 1967 conquest of the West Bank and Gaza but on the 1948 war and the founding of the Israeli state; and the record of previous negotiations, which provides ample reason to question whether a new Israeli offer similar to Olmert’s past one would this time yield different results.

Benjamin Netanyahu
Benjamin Netanyahu; drawing by John Springs

The question, therefore, is not whether Netanyahu will prove Tzipi Hotovely wrong by showing more flexibility than many expect. Time and again, pragmatism has trumped ideology for Netanyahu, whose views have already changed a great deal, as is evident from the clip above. The real question is whether there are good reasons to believe that a new round of talks, based on the same premises as previous ones, will be any more likely to succeed.

The video at the top of the page shows a 1978 debate on the question of Palestinian self-determination between the Lebanese historian Fouad Ajami and a 28-year-old American citizen then going under the Anglicized name Ben Nitay. The young Netanyahu argues that Palestinians do not have a right to a state, that they could instead get citizenship in Jordan or Israel, and that their goal is not to build a state but to destroy one.

Today an older, more experienced Netanyahu argues against these same views, which are still espoused by members of a strengthening, more conservative faction of his Likud party. These conservatives see Netanyahu, like former prime ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert before him, as a traitor to his party’s principles, as well as to his own. Yet as Sharon once said of his dramatic reversals as prime minster, “Things look different from here than they do from there.”

Nathan Thrall’s article, “What Future For Israel?,” appears in the August 15, 2013 issue of The New York Review. It discusses the 2008 talks between Olmert and Abbas, debunks the widely held belief that the two sides were close to a deal, and addresses the neglected but crucial problems arising from the 1948 war and the founding of the Israeli state.

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