Monday, June 28, 2004

Two patterns have shaped Israel’s history since 1992 and go far to explain Israel’s predicament today. First, every elected prime minister has broken his word on how he would deal with the Arabs. Second, each one of them has adopted an unexpectedly concessionary approach.

Here is one example of deception from each of the four prime ministers:

m# Yitzhak Rabin promised the Israeli public immediately after winning office in June 1992 that “with the PLO [Palestinian Liberation Organization] as an organization, I will not negotiate.” A year later, however, he did precisely that. Mr. Rabin defended dealing with Yasser Arafat by saying he had found no other Palestinians to do business with, so to “advance peace and find a solution,” he had to turn to the PLO.

m Benyamin Netanyahu promised before his election in 1996 that under his leadership, Israel “will never descend from the Golan.” In 1998, however, as I established in the New Republic and Bill Clinton just confirmed in his memoirs,Mr.Netanyahu changed his mind and planned to offer Damascus the entire Golan in return for a peace treaty.

• Ehud Barak flat-out promised during his May 1999campaigna “Jerusalem, united and under our rule forever, period.” In July 2000, however, at the Camp David II summit, he offered much of eastern Jerusalem to the Palestinian Authority.

• Ariel Sharon won a landslide victory in January 2003 over his Labor opponent, Amram Mitzna, who called for “evacuating thesettlementsfrom Gaza.”Mr.Sharon ridiculed this approach, saying that it “would bring the terrorism centers closer to [Israel’s] population centers.” In December 2003, however, Mr. SharonadoptedMr. Mitzna’s unilateral withdrawal idea.

Prime ministers sometimes complain about other ones breaking their word. Mr. Netanyahu, for example, pointed out in August 1995 that Mr. Rabin had “promised in his election campaign not to talk with the PLO, not to give up territory during this term of office, and not to establish a Palestinian state. He is breaking all these promises one by one.” Of course, when he got to office, Mr. Netanyahu also broke his promises “one by one.”

What prompts each of Israel’s recent prime ministers to renege on his resolute intentions and instead adopt a policy of unilateral concessions?

In some cases, it is a matter of expediency, notably for Mr. Netanyahu, who believed his re-election chances improved via a deal with the Syrian government. In other cases, there are elements of duplicity — specifically, hiding planned concessions knowing their unpopularity with the voters. Yossi Beilin, one of Mr. Barak’s ministers, admitted during the Camp David II summit that he and others in the government had earlier concealed their willingness to divide Jerusalem. “We didn’t speak about this in the election campaign, because we knew that the public would not like it,” Mr. Beilin said.

But expediency and duplicity are just part of the story. In addition, sincere aspirations inspire Israeli prime ministers to abandon strong policies for weak ones. Here we leave the political domain and enter the psychological one. Being prime minister of Israel, a country surrounded by enemies, is a weighty responsibility. It is only too easy for the officeholder, having been elected leader of his people, immodestly to believe that he has a special talent to resolve his country’s great, abiding, and potentially fatal problem, that of Arab hostility.

Not for this great man is it enough to plug away at the dull, slow, expensive and passive policy of deterrence, hoping some distant day to win Arab acceptance. His impatience invariably leads in the same direction — to move things faster, to develop solutions, and to “take chances for peace.”

If the prime minister’s initiative succeeds, he wins international acclaim and enters the Jewish history books. If it fails — well, it was worth the try, and his successors can clean up the mess.

Grandiosity and egoism, ultimately, explain the prime ministerial pattern of going soft. This brings to mind how, for centuries, French kings and presidents have bequeathed grand construction projects in Paris as their personal mark on history. In like spirit, Israeli prime ministers have since 1992 dreamed of bequeathing a grand diplomatic project.

The problem is, these are undemocratic impulses that betray the electorate, undermine faith in government and erode Israel’s position.Thesenegative trends will continue until Israelis elect a modest prime minister.

Daniel Pipes is director of the Middle East Forum and author of “Miniatures.”

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