Reprinted from the The Boston Globe of May 20, 1999


By Jeff Jacoby

Five weeks before he was elected Israel's prime minister in May 1996, Benjamin Netanyahu was asked whether a Likud-led government would agree to turn over Hebron -- the world's oldest Jewish city -- to Yasser Arafat and the Palestinians.

"I see no reason to withdraw from Hebron," Netanyahu said, reiterating his longstanding position. "It will not happen." But in January 1997, Netanyahu's government *did* turn over Hebron to the Palestinians. A cartoon in the Jerusalem Post showed the prime minister looking into a mirror and seeing the face of Shimon Peres, his extremely dovish predecessor, gazing back at him.

It was Peres, as foreign minister under the late Yitzhak Rabin, who had quarterbacked the Oslo accord between Israel and the PLO that was signed with such fanfare at the White House in 1993. And when Israel, in the 2-1/2 years following that ceremony, was rocked by a wave of Palestinian terror attacks, it was Peres who repeated time and again: "The peace process must continue." To Netanyahu and his supporters, this was appeasement of the most suicidal kind, tantamount to rewarding Palestinians for murdering Jews.

Yet here was Netanyahu himself, just weeks after the latest terrorist atrocity -- the gunning-down of Ita Tzur and her 12-year-old son Ephraim -- shaking hands with Arafat and handing over the keys to Hebron.

If you take your cues from US media commentators, you may believe that Netanyahu was tossed out of office by Israeli voters this week because he was a stiff-necked obstructor of the Oslo "peace process." The Los Angeles Times, to pick an example almost at random, editorialized on Tuesday that Ehud Barak, the new Labor Party prime minister, "has made clear he is prepared to move ahead with serious negotiations, after three years of Netanyahu's stonewalling."

But the commentariat has it backward. Netanyahu didn't lose to Ehud Barak because he derailed what Rabin and Peres began. He lost because he *didn't* derail it, after having promised that he would.

"Derail" is my word, of course, not Netanyahu's. When he ran for prime minister the first time, he made it clear that he could not abrogate an agreement lawfully entered into by an Israeli government. What he could do, he said, was enforce it. If Arafat and the Palestinians would not live up to their Oslo commitments -- by turning over suspected terrorists for trial, halting the constant incitement to anti-Israel violence, closing down their illegal operations in Jerusalem, and repealing the covenant calling for Israel's liquidation -- then Israel would surrender no more territory.

In short, the future of land-for-peace in a Netanyahu government would depend on the Palestinians. If they proved themselves serious about making peace, they would get more land. If not, not.

It was a popular position, and it grew more popular with each new terror attack. In the run-up to the 1996 election, polls showed that fewer and fewer Israelis believed Peres capable of making Arafat fulfill his Oslo obligations. On election day, Netanyahu won a solid majority of the Jewish vote.

Whereupon the would-be Israeli Churchill began to morph into a Chamberlain. The rhetoric remained tough, but the deeds belied them. Doves and soft-liners were appointed to key government posts. Netanyahu agreed to meet personally with Arafat, a gesture of great symbolic importance, without receiving any peaceable gesture in return. When Palestinian troops opened fire on Jewish targets in Gaza, Ramallah, Bethlehem, and Nablus in September 1996, Netanyahu's reaction was to seek another meeting with Arafat.

Israeli leftists and the global media continued to paint Netanyahu as an intransigent warmonger, but it was clear to savvy Israelis that for all Netanyahu's tough talk, the Rabin/Peres policy of unilateral concessions was going to continue.

"He hasn't honored even one of the promises which he made to the Likud before the elections," a pro-Oslo Israeli parliamentarian happily pointed out in October 1996. "He said that Jews would pray on the Temple Mount and it didn't happen. He said, `We will close Orient House' [the unlawful Palestinian headquarters in Jerusalem], and it isn't closed. Netanyahu said he would not honor the Oslo agreements if the Palestinians did not honor every paragraph in them, and now Netanyahu is committed in any case. He said that the Jewish settlement activity in the territories would be renewed, and not even one settlement has been established."

Palestinians still dream of erasing Israel from the map. As Barak's supporters were celebrating their victory on Monday night, Katyusha rockets were fired into Israel's Galilee towns by terrorists from Hezbollah -- the same Hezbollah that repeated its call two weeks ago to "eliminate the Jewish state." Arafat is now demanding not only Jerusalem, but Beersheba, Acre, and Jaffa, too. Three years of Netanyahu's governance have not dampened Palestinian irredentism. They have encouraged it.

By acquiescing in the Oslo "peace process" whose dangers he once decried, Netanyahu fatally demoralized that segment of the Israeli public that had insisted on Palestinian compliance. It was as if Churchill, having denounced the Munich pact in 1938, came grudgingly to support it in 1939. Opposition to Oslo collapsed; what remained was a national consensus in favor of appeasement. When Netanyahu committed Israel to further withdrawals in the Wye agreement last fall, public opinion overwhelmingly backed it.

To my mind, this represents a failure of national will, one for which Israelis will pay an awful price. But I am not an Israeli voter, and for Israeli voters this week, the choice was not between pro-Oslo and anti-Oslo. It was between an enthusiastically pro-Oslo candidate and a pro-Oslo candidate whose support was sullen and halfhearted. They went with the real thing.


Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe. His e-mail address is:

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