Last week, Benjamin Netanyahu was sworn in as Israel’s new Prime Minister. He is at the helm of a government which comprises a comfortable majority of the Israeli Knesset, and which includes a prominent party of the left in addition to those of the right. By Israeli standards, this government is both large and broad.
Yet even before Netanyahu assumed power, the attacks on him were quickly hardening into a hostile conventional wisdom. Netanyahu is being caricatured as a militant enemy of peace. Forget Hezbollah, Hamas and Iran. According to some observers, Israel’s new prime minister is the real threat to peace in the Middle East.
Such claims are rich in drama but short on facts. For starters, Netanyahu just took office — he does not yet have a record or even an official policy to criticize. If, in lieu of a current record, we were to look at his prior term as prime minister — from 1996 to 1999 — what emerges is not an extremist so much as a pragmatist. Although skeptical of the peace process, Netanyahu was nevertheless willing to honor prior agreements and make painful concessions. In fact it was Netanyahu who handed over control of most of Hebron — Judaism’s second holiest city — to Yassir Arafat in fulfillment of the Olso Accords. If he made such concessions to Arafat, imagine what Netanyahu would have given to a real partner for peace.
In the absence of better talking points against Netanyahu, many critics have focused their fire on Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s new foreign minister. Lieberman is a controversial man who has taken some troubling positions regarding Israel’s Arab minority. Yet when it comes to the most important issue that Lieberman will address as foreign minister — the peace process — his views are revolutionary only in that they involve giving the Palestinians even more land than most Israel’s would like. Lieberman has suggested that as part of a peace deal with the Palestinians, Israel should give them not only most of the West Bank, but also the heavily Arab-populated areas of Israel’s Galilee.
The press has made much of the fact that in his first speech as foreign minister, Lieberman rejected the Annapolis framework for negotiations with the Palestinians. Yet in the very same speech, Lieberman explicitly embraced the Road Map process. These two approaches to Middle East peace do not differ in their final goal — each envisions two states for two peoples as the ultimate solution to the conflict. Instead, the difference is the process by which this goal is achieved. Annapolis proposes that the parties reach a final status agreement first, so that it may serve as a carrot by which to encourage the cessation of terror and other prerequisites to peace. The Road Map, by contrast, demands that these prerequisites come first so that they may serve as confidence building measures that will lead to the final status agreement. The difference is largely one of tactics.
Finally, the fact that Netanyahu has included the Labor Party in his government and retained Labor’s leader, Ehud Barak, as defense minister is too significant to ignore. Labor in general, and Barak in particular, are dedicated to a two-state solution to the conflict. The fact that Netanyahu so aggressively sought to retain such a strong voice for the peace process in so central a position makes little sense if Netanyahu’s ultimate goal is to shut down that process.
The critics are thus missing the point. What we have with Netanyahu is not a man who rejects negotiations. Rather, we have a leader who has some very strong feelings about how such negotiations should proceed. Netanyahu is skeptical of using the carrot of a final status agreement to try to win certain fundamental changes on the ground. He seems dedicated instead to the proposition that these changes — namely the cessation of terror against Israel — must take place before any meaningful negotiations can proceed. Not everyone agrees with this approach, and those who do not do so should by all means express their dissent. But such measured critiques have been the exception in what so far feels more like a rush to judgment.