Neill Lochery lectures at University College London, University of London and is the author of The Difficult Road to Peace: Netanyahu, Israel and the Peace Process (Reading: Ithaca Press, 1999).
The Netanyahu government's brief history has at times seemed like a series of nonstop crises, ranging from the prime minister's wife to matters of high politics. In particular, negotiations with the Palestinians have been full of tension. Despite it all, the breakdown, once so confidently forecast in the immediate aftermath of Binyamin Netanyahu's electoral victory in May 1996, only occurred in 1999. This results in part from the resilience of the Oslo accords; but it also has to do with the prime minister himself. Given this man's centrality to Israeli politics, plus the way he keeps mystifying both friend and foe, there is an urgent need, especially going into the May 1999 elections, to identify what Netanyahu stands for and how he has altered long-standing Likud Party policy.
We begin by locating where Netanyahu personally stands on the peace process and specifically the Oslo accords; then we examine the restraints on him and assess his policy options.
WHAT NETANYAHU BELIEVES
Before becoming prime minister, Netanyahu prided himself on the constancy of his ideological beliefs, at the center of which stood the notion of "Greater Israel," by which he meant a Jewish state on both banks of the River Jordan. In addition, his concept of Israel's security requirements implied control of the West Bank. In A Place Among Nations,1 the blueprint of his beliefs, Netanyahu returns time and again to the imperative of Israel keeping the West Bank to protect Israel's eastern border. For all his political life, from serving in Israel's embassy in Washington to leading the opposition (in 1993-96), Netanyahu's non-acceptance of compromise on these issues stands out. He adamantly rejected the Oslo accords, leading militant demonstrations against them, and sought to build a united national block that included parties of the radical right (such as Tsomet). These acts caused many observers to conclude that Netanyahu is a hard-line Likud ideologue.
But they were wrong, for they failed to take into account the many signs pointing to pragmatism as Netanyahu's main political characteristic.2 He grew up and was educated in the United States, then lived there, both as a businessman and as an Israeli diplomat in Washington and New York; those many years residing in America influenced his early years and provided him with a worldly outlook generally absent among Likud leaders. Netanyahu often stresses his admiration for the American political system;3 and like so many American politicians, Netanyahu's guiding light is power rather than a specific set of principles. Moreover, he realizes that to gain support in the United States, he needs to cultivate a spectrum of groups there.
Netanyahu's robust opposition to the Oslo accords, no doubt genuine at the time, also served as a rallying cry and mechanism when, as opposition leader, he needed to unify the nationalist (or Likud-led) bloc. Its disunity had been a leading reason for its loss to Labor in the 1992 elections.4 Three years later Netanyahu explained what happened in a speech to the Likud Central Committee:
Five-and-a-half months before the election, the polls predicted a sweeping victory for us, but we suffered a humiliating defeat, despite unprecedented diplomatic breakthroughs and a very healthy economy ... It was the ceaseless internal bickering which brought this movement down. This was not a new phenomenon. It continued from Menachem Begin's days, but reached new heights prior to the last election. Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir did his best, but to no avail.5
Then, when it was no longer practical, Netanyahu changed his stance. At the start of the 1996 election campaign, he moved to the political center by accepting the Oslo accords and promising to continue implementing the interim agreement of 1994. He would be a more reluctant participant in the process than the Labor Party and would make fewer concessions in final status talks than it had done, but he would continue the negotiating process.6 Netanyahu unveiled this new policy in April 1996:
We are inheriting a bad agreement which has created a bad set of facts on the ground. But for all of our opposition to the agreement as such, we cannot ignore those facts which it has created. The Oslo agreements were bad and were particularly remiss in regard to Israel's security, but by not ignoring disadvantageous facts, we can act to limit the damage already wrought.7
This dramatic change, made over a period of only a few days, resulted from two main factors. First, the new political realties in Israel meant that acceptance of Oslo had become imperative to attract the vital center-ground voters. Secondly, Netanyahu's desire for power far exceeds his ideological convictions about Greater Israel.
Although the public shift in Netanyahu's position was remarkably rapid, as early as 1994, Netanyahu and many senior figures in the Likud (such as Dan Meridor and Meir Shitreet) had privately reconciled to carrying out at least parts of the Oslo process. (Other senior figures in the party, notably Ze'ev Begin, both publicly and privately rejected all aspects of the Oslo process.) Already in 1994, Meridor correctly predicted that, providing that the majority of the Israeli electorate supported the accords, Netanyahu would publicly change his position on the Oslo accords as elections approached.8
In thus shifting strategy, Netanyahu risked alienating large parts of his party and the wider nationalist block that he had worked so hard to cultivate. But the strategy was successful; it helped ensure Netanyahu's election victory and postponed difficult decisions within Likud about the future direction of the peace process.
On becoming prime minister, Netanyahu has acted on the assumption that his future political prospects, and especially his chances of re-election, depend largely on his management of the peace process. He appears to have concluded that he has no alternative to the Oslo accords, due to the general support for them from the centrist Israeli voters who decide the outcome of Israeli elections and from the U.S. government, as well as the Palestinian refusal to re-negotiate any part of the overall accords.
To date, even after the many terrorist attacks and other problems with Palestinian compliance, a majority of the Israeli electorate supports the Oslo process, including those crucial members of the public who are identified as center-ground voters. Evidence of this can be found in a January 1997 poll that obtained the responses to two key questions (See tables 1.1 and 1.2 above).9
If Netanyahu personally feels that the Oslo accords have severe limitations, politically his pragmatism and deep sense of attachment to power cause him actively to make the Oslo process work.10 This implies that were Israeli public opinion significantly to shift against the Oslo process, so would his commitment to it. A good example of this occurred during the London Conference on May 4, 1998, when Netanyahu refused to increase his initial offer of a 9 percent troop withdrawal from the West Bank, buoyed by polls at home that showed an increased skepticism among the Israeli electorate about the Oslo process and widespread support for Netanyahu's stand.11
In a practical sense, this amounts to a third way. Netanyahu's approach rejects the ideological-dominated eras of Yitzhak Shamir and Shimon Peres. In essence, if not in style, Netanyahu has most in common with the overall perspectives and negotiating stance of Yitzhak Rabin (note their similar reluctance to dealing with Yasir Arafat, for instance). They resemble each other more than Netanyahu does Shamir or Rabin does Peres. Either of them could have given the speech that Netanyahu in fact gave in August 1997:
Between "rose garden" dreams on the one hand, and paranoia and isolation on the other, there is a golden path of realism, of Realpolitik. This is the path that Israel chose beginning in the Ben-Gurion era, and this must be our choice today. If we know when to compromise, when to grasp opportunities and when to display determination and decisiveness, we can bring peace with security to our country and to our people.12
Specifically, Netanyahu has set three criteria on which a lasting peace must be built: Israeli security, reciprocity, and democracy (including human rights).13 In this sense, Netanyahu, not Peres, is the natural successor to Rabin.
However, the form that this third-way vision takes remains unclear. To understand his premiership in action means looking closely at each of the major negotiating tracks with the Arabs, the Palestinians and the Syrians.
THE PALESTINIAN TRACK
The prime minister has shown himself to be well aware of the internal restraints imposed on him and has attempted, not without some success, to find ways of by-passing them. He needed to employ all his political skills to get the Hebron accord (Januayr 1997) and subsequent troop re-deployment deal (February 1997) past the cabinet and the Likud. He wanted to do this because a substantial majority of the Israeli electorate had a positive view of the Hebron agreement, as indicated by the same poll as cited earlier (See table 2 below).
After the Hebron deal was signed, the Labor Party indicated it would act as a safety net in the subsequent parliamentary vote on ratification, giving Netanyahu a sizable majority. Consequently, the cabinet became the sole opportunity for the opponents of the deal to secure enough support to reject it. Had the cabinet done so, Netanyahu would have had to bring the agreement before parliament without cabinet ratification, jeopardizing the government coalition. Long before signing the deal, however, he had canvassed cabinet colleagues and had assured himself that he had at least a slender majority. When the cabinet finally met to consider Hebron, the prime minister allowed every minister to speak on the issue, hoping that they would let off steam for their various right-wing and religious constituencies, then fall into line, however reluctantly, for approval. Due largely to Netanyahu's ability to convince enough ministers, keen to maintain the stability of the government, to vote for it, the cabinet did just this and by a 10-to-7 vote ratified the deal. But though he won the vote, this strategy revealed the prime minister's inexperience and lack of authority within the Likud; for several members of the cabinet, including some from his own party, actively campaigned against the prime minister.
These difficulties go a long way to explain his decisions to compensate the party and coalition by proceeding with the Har Homa construction project in eastern Jerusalem; a smaller-than-expected transfer of land to the Palestinian Authority (PA); and the proposal to speed up final status negotiations (an attempt to push back the Oslo goal posts). Take the decision of February 1997 to build at Har Homa:
It was, in part, an illustration of Netanyahu's weakness in his own party and coalition. When his original strategy of playing to his right-wing constituency by re-deploying in only 9 percent of the West Bank backfired due to the strength of feeling of the Right, he turned instead to Israel's control of Jerusalem, a relatively safe domestic issue for any Israeli leader. He correctly calculated that a majority of the Labor Party would support his decision to build homes for 42,000 Jews in East Jerusalem, thus avoiding a major domestic political confrontation. After announcing the decision, which received the predictable criticism from the PA and much of the world, Netanyahu turned up the rhetoric by declaring that Israel has the right to build where it wants in Jerusalem, the eternal capital of Israel:
Jerusalem is ours. Whoever asks Israel to give up the unity of Israel does not understand how this chord plays on our heart ... We will build everywhere we decided and no one—no one will prevent us.14
He then used subsequent Palestinian violence in the West Bank and suicide bombings of a Tel Aviv café and a Jerusalem market to slow down the pace of negotiations further .
Netanyahu's problems rounding up votes also came out in the Bar-On affair, an incident when he, along with the director of his office (Avigdor Liberman) and the minister of justice (Tzachi Hanegbi), was placed under investigation for an alleged deal with Ariye Deri, leader of the Shas Party. As reported by the Israeli media, Shas ministers in the cabinet agreed to support ratification of the Hebron deal (or at least abstain from voting) in exchange for Netanyahu arranging a plea bargain for Deri. The deal never took place and Deri is currently on trial on changes of corruption; although Netanyahu and his aides were not indicted, this incident made their political neediness all too clear.15
The October 1998 appointment of Ariel Sharon as minister of foreign affairs marked a logical development for Netanyahu, who thereby reassured the Right even as he made compromises it opposed to withdraw Israeli troops from 13 percent of the West Bank. This enabled Netanyahu to stymie threats to his premiership from the Right following his signing of the Wye River memorandum on October 23, 1998.
While it is true that Netanyahu faces high levels of internal restraints, limiting his room for maneuver, intra-party and inter-bloc needs do not completely explain Netanyahu's actions. Clearly, with final status talks due to start, he leads a party and government reluctant to work with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), yet Netanyahu (like Arafat) is maneuvering for position.
THE SYRIAN TRACK
The Syrian and Lebanese tracks are simpler for Netanyahu than the Palestinian one, for he faces fewer internal restraints here. At the same time, the external restraints are higher—meaning that Asad has a questionable commitment to ending his conflict with Israel. The key issue vis-à-vis Syria concerns security; the complicating factor of ideology is nearly absent. Likud and its allies have no ideological claim over the Golan Heights but believe it vital to the security of Israel. The settlements were placed there largely by the Labor Party and residents there tend to vote Labor. Moreover, although these settlers' groups have expressed their opposition to abandoning their homes in any final deal with the Syrians, it is thought probable that financial compensation (probably supplied by the United States) would persuade the vast majority of them to relocate to within Israel.
In office, Netanyahu maintained a tough position consistent with his previous writings and speeches. In fact, to some degree, the prime minister has used negotiations with Syria as a context in which to flex his hawkish credentials to his party and coalition even as he makes difficult compromises with the Palestinians. He has flatly refused Syrian demands to resume negotiations on the basis of offers the Labor government had made about returning the Golan Heights in exchange for a full peace with Syria, stating that no binding offer existed (a point on which the Labor Party and the U.S. government fully back him).
Internal restraints on Netanyahu with regard to Syria come from both his own party and his coalition. Likud security experts reject the formula of complete return of the Golan Heights for total peace. They are searching for a different formula than the one employed with Egypt at Camp David (which saw all of Sinai handed over to Egypt). Netanyahu's advisors have suggested such confidence-building measures as Damascus restraining attacks on Israel from groups based in southern Lebanon; discussions about water issues; and high-level military contacts to prevent misunderstandings. But Likud, which has to address major ideological questions in the Palestinian negotiations, is not ready to alter its platform on the matter of total opposition to withdrawal from the Golan Heights. Moreover, of the seven parties in the coalition, six clearly oppose any withdrawal (only the position of Shas is unclear) and one of them, the Third Way, was formed in 1996 by rebel Labor Party Knesset members specifically to oppose any Israeli withdrawal form the Golan Heights.
These poor short-term prospects on the Syrian track should not obscure the fact that, long term, Netanyahu may decide to resolve the conflict with Syria by returning a large part of the Golan Heights, seeing this as a way to deflect international pressure as the Palestinian negotiations became even more difficult. As in the case of the Palestinian track, Netanyahu would probably have to employ such mechanisms as taking a tough stand on other issues and relying on the Labor Party for support. This said, the problems in reaching such an accommodation with the Syrians remain substantial; here, the external restraints (the Syrians themselves) far outweigh the internal restraints on the prime minister. This is confirmed by the fact that there appears to be a feeling in Damascus that the current time is not the correct time to resolve the conflict with Israel, and an ailing President Asad seems content to maintain the status quo of no war, no peace with Israel.
It may be that Netanyahu and the Syrians are engaged in quiet negotiations; this method of diplomacy has advantages for him in so far as it allows him to present to his party and government any deal with Asad as a fait accompli, much as Rabin did with the Oslo accords.16 This would further enhance Netanyahu's ability to negotiate free from the internal restraints that otherwise hem him in. The Syrians are extremely distrustful of such channels, however, in large part due to the fact that in the course of negotiations with the Labor-led government details of secret meetings, seminars, and discussions were often leaked to the press for political profit.
Instead, the Syrian regime prefers shuttle diplomacy conducted by the Americans, which it expects will maximize the benefits it wins from a deal with Israel. Thus, if secret negotiations suit Netanyahu, who needs obscurity to prevent internal opposition, they are less attractive to Asad. Still, the latter could also gain from this approach, if only he can overcome his suspicions of the Netanyahu government and distance himself from the Palestinian question.
THE LEBANESE TRACK
The question of Israel's relationship with Lebanon is very closely related with Lebanon's power broker, Syria. The Lebanese track, which also concerns security, is the one where Netanyahu enjoys the lowest level of internal restraints (almost no Israelis are ideological about Lebanon), but the external restraints are formidable due to the control that Syria exerts over Lebanon, including Hizbullah forces in southern Lebanon. In short, Netanyahu faces a similar challenge as his immediate predecessors: to find a way of withdrawing Israeli forces from southern Lebanon while providing northern Israel with protection against rocket and terrorist attacks from across its border. Netanyahu himself is keen to remove Israeli forces from Lebanon as quickly as possible; he has stated publicly that he wishes to leave "yesterday." He made a further attempt to remove Israel Defense Forces (IDF) from Lebanon in early 1998, accepting United Nations resolutions that called for an Israeli withdrawal and for the Lebanese army to take control of the south. However, once again Asad vetoed the move and as a consequence the IDF is likely to remain in the security zone for the foreseeable future.
The major internal restraint on Netanyahu regarding Lebanon is himself and the fact that he promised to enhance the personal security of Israelis. He is acutely aware of the need to reach some kind of security agreement which would prevent attacks on Israel's northern towns such as Kiryat Shemona. His campaign slogan in 1996 had been "Peace with Security," based on the claim that the Peres government had neglected the safety of individual Israelis. This has a clear impact even now; despite a growing lobby demanding a unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon, the prime minister fears the results of anarchy in southern Lebanon and the attacks on Israel that would likely follow such a move.
The prime minister's third-way approach to the peace process has had short-term success in that it permitted him to shore up his relatively weak position in his party and his bloc. By manipulating, persuading, or coercing his constituency into accepting compromises, Netanyahu has effected major changes in Likud policy. His policies reflect the centrist Israeli national consensus—supporting Oslo but remaining skeptical of Arafat and reluctant to make the concessions needed to make Oslo work. Netanyahu's success in staking out the middle ground has been confirmed by his slight but consistent lead in opinion polls over the opposition leader, Ehud Barak.
But all these are short-term palliatives. Should Netanyahu win re-election, the day of decision will be unavoidable, forcing him to choose between returning large parts of the West Bank and the breakdown of the peace process. His third way has postponed that day but not avoided it. Furthermore, because large sections of his constituency remain deeply skeptical of the Oslo agreements, Netanyahu cannot expect a substantial shift in position by his backers.
If re-elected, Netanyahu will likely face problems of coalition maintenance much as he has since 1996. In other words, even if he has a strengthened personal mandate, the composition of the Knesset is likely to mean that he will have to put together a similar coalition to the one he just lost. This means that many of the old problems he faced would re-emerge as he is forced to make difficult decisions about the peace process. Netanyahu will have two major tactical choices and two policy choices, none of which is ideal and all of which he will put off for as long as possible.
Tactical options. He can either enact electoral reform and call for new elections or go for a national unity government. In the first scenario, he sponsors legislation reverting the country back to the old electoral system of proportional representation for party lists, then calls snap elections. His goal would be to reduce fragmentation in the Knesset, thereby increasing the strength of the major parties (Likud and Labor). In theory, such a move would make it easier to form and maintain coalitions than under the current system.
Of course, there is no guarantee that Netanyahu and the Likud would emerge as the largest party, so new elections would be a major gamble for the prime minister.
Alternatively, he can join with the Labor Party after re-election in a national unity government. This would ease the ratification of agreements with Arabs at the cabinet level and implicate the Labor chiefs in the responses to violent Arab reactions to Netanyahu's policies. But a national unity government would further erode Netanyahu's already limited patronage powers within the Likud, perhaps leading to the emergence of a new candidate to challenge his leadership.
Policy options. Here a basic choice looms: derail the peace process or continue it. Derailment preserves the Right's unity and helps secure Netanyahu's position as its leader but damages his overall political future, which depends on his being perceived by Israel's centrists as having made progress in the peace process. Signing the Wye River memorandum seems to signal that Netanyahu will not pursue this option. Instead, it seems likely that, short of a revolution in Israel public opinion, Binyamin Netanyahu will proceed with the peace process, whether on his own or in a national unity government. In effect, the tough decisions have already been made.
1 Binyamin Netanyahu, A Place Among Nations: Israel and the World (New York: Bantam, 1993).
2 For a highly critical account of Netanyahu's beliefs see Colin Shindler, Israel, Likud and the Zionist Dream (London: I. B. Tauris, 1995), pp. 284-287.
3 For a reference to his admiration for the United States see, Netanyahu, speech to joint session of Congress, July 10, 1996.
4 See for example, Neill Lochery, The Israeli Labour Party: in the Shadow of the Likud (Reading: Ithaca Press, 1998).
5 Speech by Binyamin Netanyahu to the Likud Central Committee, June 6, 1995, Likud headquarters, Tel Aviv.
6 For an account of the attempts of the Likud to come to terms with the Oslo accords and the deep internal divisions in the party over the issue see for example, Efraim Inbar, "Netanyahu Takes Over," Israel at the Polls 1996, ed. Daniel Elazar and Shmuel Sandler (London and Portland: Frank Cass, 1998), pp. 34-36.
7 Address by Binyamin Netanyahu to the Israel Council for Foreign Relations, Jerusalem, Apr. 21, 1996, Likud headquarters, Tel Aviv.
8 Author's interview with Dan Meridor, Nov. 8, 1994, in Jerusalem.
9 Poll conducted for the Tami Steimetz Center for Peace Studies at Tel Aviv University by Modi'in Ezrachi based on a representative sample of 504 Israeli Jews on Jan. 29, 1997. The survey has a 4 percent margin of error.
10 Netanyahu's most detailed account of his views on Oslo are found in an interview he gave to Ha'aretz, Nov. 22, 1996.
11 See poll in Yedi'ot Aharonot, May 5, 1998.
12 Speech by Binyamin Netanyahu at the cadets' graduation ceremony of the National Defense College, Aug. 14, 1997.
13 Netanyahu's speech to joint session of Congress, June 6, 1995, lucidly set out these points.
14 Address by Binyamin Netanyahu to the Central Committee of the Likud, Mar. 3, 1997, Likud Party headquarters, Tel Aviv.
15 For a detailed account of the Bar-On scandal and the reasons behind it, see Neill Lochery, "Blocking Bibi's Bid for Power," The World Today, June 1996, pp. 151-53.
16 David Bar-Illan confirmed this belief stating that secret diplomacy with the Syrians would be better and necessary. Interview conducted by the author with Bar-Illan, Jerusalem, Mar. 5, 1998.