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Bold Decisions: Three Israeli Prime Ministers Who Went against the Grain

Itamar Rabinobich

in: Chaeran Y. Freeze, Sylvia Fuks Fried, and Eugene R. Sheppard (eds.), The Individual in History: Essays in Honor of Jehuda Reinharz (Brandeis University Press, 2015), pp. 193-208


Israel’s short and turbulent political history is punctuated by critical decisions both taken and not taken by its leaders. In 1948, David Ben Gurion carried his associates with him to declare statehood and independence, disregarding the uncertain odds and Secretary Marshall’s dire admonition. In the aftermath of June 1967 war, Levy Eshkol’s government coping with a complex new reality failed to make a decision regarding the disposition of the territories captured in the Sinai, the Golan Heights, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Israel thus drifted into a new reality and is still grappling with its ramifications. Israel had nine Prime Ministers since Eshkol’s death in 1969 and all had to deal with what became the governing issue of Israeli politics and policies. Of the nine, three sought to perpetuate the status quo (Golda Meir, Yitzhak Shamir, and Benjamin Nethanyahu, at least thus far); two tried in vain to change it radically (Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert); and three (Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon) did manage to effect significant breakthroughs.

Out interest in the decisions and actions of Begin, Rabin and Sharon – the 1979 Peace Treaty with Egypt, the 1993 Oslo Accords, and the 2005 unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip – is twofold. They all took bold decisions, were able to get them through the Israeli political system and through the regional and international environment. And all three went against the grain of their own record, image, and perceived ideological core. A closer look at each of those episodes should offer fresh insights into the nature of leadership in modern and contemporary Israel as well as into the relationship between the leaders and the led in the Israeli context.


Mencahem Begin and the peace with Egypt

In the aftermath of the 1967 war, Menachem Begin and his party (Gahal – the block composed of Herut and Liberal parties) were staunch supporters of preserving the territorial status quo. A new movement, the Land of Israel Movement, was formed by individuals who represented the full spectrum of Israeli politics and intellectual lives in order to advocate the view that Israel was entitled and, indeed, had a duty to keep the territorial gains of the Six-Days War. The argument was twofold. Ideologically, it was argued that this was the Land of Israel, the homeland of the Jewish People, and the State of Israel was entitled to occupy the full territory of the ancient homeland. Others made a national security argument stating that the crisis of May 1967 proved that Armistice Lines of 1949 were not defensible and that Israel deserved the defensible borders created by the outcome of the Six-Day War. Menachem Begin and his party were not part of this movement but they subscribed to the same ideology and national security arguments. They laid claim to all territory captures in 1967 but their more forceful claim was laid to the Land of Israel or, to use the term they actually disliked, Palestine.

On the eve of the Six-Day War, Menachem Begin and his party joined the national unity government that was formed in order to enable PM Eshkol to steer the country through the crisis on the basis of a broad national consensus. They stayed in Eshkol’s coalition in the aftermath of the war making an important contribution to the government’s failure to take any bold decision regarding the future of the territories captured in the course of the war. It should be mentioned in this context that on June 19, 1967, in the war’s immediate aftermath, Eshkol’s cabinet passed a resolution offering Egypt and Syria to sign peace agreements “on the basis of the international boundary and Israel’s security needs.” Menachem Begin voted for this resolution that drew a sharp distinction between the territories captured from Egypt and Syria and the territories of Mandatory Palestine, and in fact offered Egypt and Syria less than full withdrawal. This position was eroded over time as the post-1967 reality settled in. When in August 1970 Golda Meir’s government accepted Secretary of State Rogers’ “initiative” (as distinct from his 1969 “plan”), which ended the “war of attrition” with Egypt in the Sinai, Begin and his party withdrew from the government.

They stayed out of power for the next seven years until the elections of May 1977, when for the first time in Israel’s history and after several successive failures, Menachem Begin won the parliamentary elections, thus ending a long period of the Labor movement hegemony in Israel’s pre-state and post-independence politics. The immediate background to this transfer of power was the debacle of the 1973 war and the series of scandals that marked the decline of the Labor party. The October war of 1973 marked also the beginning of a peace process that led to the signing of disengagement agreements with Egypt and Syria and the interim agreement over the Sinai (September 1975). Begin was critical of the concessions made by Golda Meir’s and Yitzahk Rabin’s governments in these initial phases of the peace process. That process was orchestrated by the American Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger. Kissinger believed that a comprehensive Arab-Israel settlement could not be achieved, at least at that time, and pursued instead a “piecemeal diplomacy”, negotiating a series of partial agreements. When Jimmy Carter defeated Gerald Ford in the November 1976 presidential elections, he and his administration reversed Kissinger’s policy and adopted a policy seeking a comprehensive solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Carter believed in practically full Israeli withdrawal from the territories captured in 1967 and in the formation of a Palestinian state as an essential component of such a settlement. This policy led to a clash between Carter and Rabin in the spring of 1977, but the clash did not last long since Rabin had to resign from office for personal reasons, and his successor, Shimon Peres, lost the May elections to Menachem Begin.[1]

It was broadly assumed that Begin was on a collision course with the Carter Administration and with large parts of the international system. If Carter’s policies were not acceptable to the pragmatic Rabin, they were bound to be rejected by the ideologically-bent Begin. In parts of the world, particularly in Great Britain, Begin was still tainted by what was seen as the terrorist legacy of the Irgun that he had commanded before Israel’s independence. It was assumed, and in many quarters feared, that he would radicalize Israeli policies particularly in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip where a modest settlement project had already begun.

But these assumptions were proven wrong, at least in part. Begin appointed Moshe Dayan, who defected from the Labor party, as his Foreign Minister in order to mitigate international opposition and enjoy Dayan’s prestige and international standing.[2] Furthermore, he came to the conclusion that the only way out of the circumstances created by Carter’s policies was to seek a separate peace with Egypt. Begin could assume, and then found out in practice, that Egypt might be interested in making a separate peace with Israel in return for a full withdrawal from the Sinai. A message to this effect was transmitted to Begin by the Romanian dictator, Nicolae Ceaușescu. Later, in meetings held by Moshe Dayan in Morocco with Egypt’s Deputy PM, Hassan Tuhami, messages were conveyed that indicated that such a deal was feasible and that Egypt was willing to give Israel at least a degree of latitude with regard to the West Bank and the Palestinian issue. In other words, Begin could assume that he could sacrifice the Sinai in order to obtain peace with Egypt and Egyptian acquiescence with continued Israel control of the West Bank (Begin was willing to offer the Gaza Strip to Egypt, but Egypt’s president Anwar Sadat declined). In strategic terms, Begin was within reach of achieving the first major breakthrough in the Arab-Israeli conflict by achieving a peace treaty with the most important Arab state and removing the danger of war with the most powerful Arab army. In ideological terms, he could justify this radical change in his earlier position by arguing that he was giving away the Sinai in order to protect Israel’s control of the Land of Israel.[3]

This policy became feasible by the availability of an Egyptian partner. Anwar Sadat, who succeeded the great Abd el-Nasser in 1970, was determined to regain the Sinai lost by his predecessor as well as to transform Egypt’s domestic and foreign policies. The policy of shifting from a Soviet to American orientation had begun prior to the 1973 war, and was reinforced by Kissinger’s diplomacy in the war’s aftermath. Like Rabin and Begin, but for different reasons, Sadat was horrified by Carter’s policies. In order to achieve a comprehensive solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, Carter collaborated with the Soviet Union and was courting Syria and the PLO. This provided the immediate backdrop to Sadat’s decision to proceed with Menachem Begin, to travel to Jerusalem, and enter the negotiations that culminated in the Camp David Accord of September 1978 and the Peace Treaty of March 1979.

The Carter’s Administration’s initial reaction to this Egyptian-Israeli venture was quite chilly. It realized that this was bound to pull the rug from under its own preferred policy. But in short order the president and his associates understood that if Egypt and Israel decided to make peace, the US could not be critical or indifferent. The Carter Administration thus decided to take charge of the Egyptian-Israeli peace process and to its credit played a significant role in bringing it to a successful end. Washington’s assistance was crucial since the actual give and take between Egypt and Israel proved to be quite difficult. The two main bones of contention were the issue of full withdrawal (Sadat insisted that withdrawal from the whole of the Sinai “to the last inch” was a sine qua non), and the Palestinian issue. This latter issue was of particular significance and complexity. While Sadat was willing in practice to make a separate deal with Israel he needed cover. Initially, he wanted certain language introduced to a text of any agreement that would mention “the full legitimate rights of the Palestinians”. To this Begin objected. In his legalistic frame of mind, “full legitimate rights” included national rights, or in other words – the right for self determination and statehood. Needless to say, this was unacceptable to Begin. He than came up with the idea of autonomy for the Palestinians. The notion of autonomy was rooted in his familiarity with Eastern and Central European reality of the inter-war period. This was less then independence but in the end, a formula was found that Sadat could live with as could Begin. Begin’s team, three members in particular (FM Dayan, DM Weitzman and legal advisor Aharon Barak), played a crucial role in leading the PM through the minefield of these difficulties.

While Begin was willing to make the trade “the Sinai for the West Bank”, significant bloc within his own party and movement refused to support his change of heart. In order to get parliamentary approval for his policy and the agreement, Begin had to rely on the support of the Labor party and other members of the opposition. There was a larger issue than straight forward support or opposition in the political system. The Israeli public had been told for a decade that the Sinai was essential for the country’s defense, that it made a huge difference whether Egyptian jets would have to fly towards Israel from the Egyptian mainland or from the Sinai. Settlements were built and so was the town of Yamit in order to block Egypt’s access to the Gaza Strip. FM Moshe Dayan had famously stated that he preferred Sharm a-Sheikh without peace to peace without Sharm a-Sheikh. How was the Israeli public to be swayed? Begin’s task in this regard was facilitated by Sadat. Sadat understood the importance of affecting Israeli public opinion and this is why he chose to begin the process by making his historical visit to Jerusalem, addressing the Israeli public and telling him that war should come to an end. Clearly, in order to break the impasse between Egypt and Israel, it was essential to have two leaders who could see the larger historical picture, make bold decisions, and carry their publics with them.

It did not take long for Menachem Begin to realize that at least part of his calculus was wrong. Sadat was fully committed to keep the full peace with Israel, but he was not willing to comply with uninterrupted continued Israeli control of the West Bank and its Palestinian population. Shortly after the conclusion of the peace between Egypt and Israel, Begin found himself in a dual difficulty. The Autonomy Plan for the Palestinians was not going anywhere and it strained his relationships with both the US and Egypt, and the PLO kept attacking Israel from its base in Southern Lebanon. It was against this backdrop that Ariel Sharon persuaded Begin to launch the 1982 war in Lebanon. This war, Sharon explained to the PM, would deal a mortal blow to the PLO and help realize his plan to turn Jordan into Palestine. Begin was drawn into the catastrophe of the Lebanon War. A leader who was credited to the historic achievement of peace with Egypt and was given the Nobel Prize for it, marred his record by the failed war in Lebanon. Begin never overcame this tragedy that led him to resign from office and to seclude himself in his home.

 

Yitzhak Rabin and the Oslo Accords

During his first term as PM (1974-1977), Yitzhak Rabin shared Henry Kissinger’s view of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the diplomatic strategy for trying to address it. He did not believe that a comprehensive solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict was available, nor did he believe in dealing with the Arab collective or with the Palestinian national movement. Rabin rather believed that Israel should move gradually in phases in mitigating its conflict with such Arab states as Egypt, Jordan and Syria. As defense minister in the national unity government of the late 1980s, Rabin dealt harshly with the first Intifada. In the election campaign of 1992, Rabin ran on a platform that promised to negotiate an autonomy agreement with the Palestinians within nine months of forming a government. Rabin also spoke clearly in the campaign against withdrawal from the Golan Heights. Rabin inherited the Madrid Process from the Shamir government. While Shamir was reluctant to proceed in the process, Rabin was determined to use it in order to effect a change in Israel’s order of priorities. He wanted to an end to massive investments in the settlement project in the West Bank, to rebuild close relationship with the US, and to invest Israel’s resources in building an infrastructure for the 21st century.[4]

After being elected, Rabin was told by Secretary of State Baker that Syria’s ruler Hafez al-Asad was willing to sign an agreement with Israel similar to the one signed by Sadat, and that the Bush administration was willing to underwrite such a peace agreement. Rabin was impressed and he adopted a dual strategy: He continued the negotiations with the Palestinian delegation to the Washington talks that emanated from the Madrid process with a view to signing the autonomy agreement that he had promised, but at the same time tried to find out whether the prospect of signing a full fledged peace agreement with Syria was realistic.

In the course of 1993, Rabin realized that the Israeli-Palestinian negotiating track in Washington was stale. It was based on the pretense that Israeli was negotiating with delegation representing the Palestinian population in the West Bank and in Gaza, and not the PLO, but in reality the delegation to the Washington talks was acting on instructions from Tunis. Rabin gradually came to the conclusion that he had no choice but to actually negotiate the PLO itself. On March 1, 1993, he formally adopted the Oslo track created by two independent Israeli academics, working under the supervision of Deputy FM Yossi Beilin. Beilin eventually briefed FM Peres on the Oslo track and Peres in turn eventually briefed Rabin. In March Rabin agreed that the Director General of Israeli Foreign Ministry, Uri Savir, will join and head the negotiations. This was a radical departure from Rabin’s earlier attitude towards the PLO. The Oslo track was kept confidential and by August 1993 it produced a draft agreement. In August 1993, Rabin made two bold decisions. In order to find out whether Syria was a real partner for peace treaty, he deposited with the Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, hypothetical conditional willingness to withdraw from the Golan Heights in return for a package of peace and security comparable to the one offered to Menachem Begin by Anwar Sadat. When he was disappointed by Asad’s response, Rabin endorsed the draft agreement in Oslo. In so doing, Rabin agreed to recognize the PLO as the legitimate representative of Palestinian nationalism, to the establishment of a Palestinian Authority controlled by the PLO and Yasser Arafat in parts of the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip, as well as top enter negotiations for a final status agreement that could lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state.[5]

Both decisions, the deposit made to Warren Christopher conveying willingness to a full withdrawal from the Golan and the Oslo accords, were bold decisions that represented a radical departure from Rabin’s earlier policies. Rabin was a former General Officer Commanding of the Northern Command, a former Chief of Staff of the IDF, and for him withdrawal from the Golan Heights was a painful decision. As mentioned above, he spoke against it during the election campaign of 1992. Likewise, recognizing the PLO and accepting the main features of the Oslo accords were measures that just a year earlier would seem inconceivable for Yitzhak Rabin. In the event, the decision on the Golan Heights remained a dead letter, did not lead to an agreement, and did not have to be implemented. But Rabin did shake Yasser Arafat’s hand on the White House lawn in September 1993, and did sign the first and second Oslo accords. This was a controversial policy that generated bitter opposition among the Israeli right wing, and eventually led to Rabin’s assassination in November 1995.

Rabin made these two decisions when he realized that no progress in the peace process was possible without a radical departure from the cautious policy he began his tenure with. Rabin made a decision with regard to Syria on his own. His policy on the Palestinian issue was carried out in close cooperation with Shimon Peres. In this case, Rabin endorsed a policy formulated originally by his FM and the latter’s deputy. But while Rabin was not the original architect of the Oslo accord, his leadership was essential for its implementation. The Israeli public, or at least a large part of it, was willing to go along with the Oslo process only because a centrist leader like Rabin became associated with it. Rabin projected certain ambivalence towards the Oslo process even when endorsing it. This, too, turned out to be am important element in making it acceptable to the Israeli public.

 

Ariel Sharon and the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip

During most of his career as an army officer and a politician, Ariel Sharon was identified with the activist and then the right wing of Israel politics. After ending his military career and joining the political system, he became the most effective leader of the Israeli right wing. As minister of defense in 1982, he was the architect of the First Lebanon War. As minister of housing and minister of agriculture and an important member of Likud governments, he was the primary force pushing for construction of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The Ariel Sharon of those years was identified with the view that there was no prospect of Arab acceptance of Israel and / or of Arab-Israel peace, and hence, that Israel should hold on to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Many of the settlements that Sharon promoted were placed so as to preempt the option of an eventual partition or a peace settlement in the West Bank.

In 2001, Sharon finally realized his long standing ambition and became Israel’s PM. He defeated Ehud Barak in the February 2001 elections that were held against the backdrop of the collapse of the Camp David summit in July 2000, and the outbreak of the Second Intifada. As PM Sharon had to deal with the most severe crisis faced by the Israeli state since the 1950s. Sharon’s handling of the crisis indicated that Sharon the PM was different from the ambitious, restless general and politician of earlier decades. Sharon defeated the Intifada and resorted to some radical measures in so doing, but he proved to be much more careful and pragmatic than his image led people to believe. He built a good working relationship with George W. Bush’s White House and refrained from crossing red lines. He also proved to be very skillful politician. Sharon’s skillful management of the crisis and his ability to defeat the Second Intifada endowed him with an unusual stature in Israeli politics that he could use in order to initiate and carry out radical changes in policy.[6]

Discussion of Sharon’s change of heart and departure from his traditional policies focuses as a rule on his decision to withdraw unilaterally from the Gaza Strip and to dismantle all Israeli settlements in that region. This indeed was a radical departure for a leader who for years was the chief architect of Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Not long before his decision in 2005 to withdraw from Gaza, he famously said that “the fate of Netzarim (an isolated settlement in the Gaza Strip) is the fate of Tel Aviv.”[7] The Gaza and West Bank settlers who for years saw him as their patron and the Israeli public at large were shocked by this radical decision. This decision should in fact be seen in a larger context. Sharon was in his second tenure as PM. He was in his seventies and looked at political decisions in their historical context. He definitely thought about his legacy and place in history. Sharon continued to believe that final status agreement with the Palestinians was not possible and that the PLO was not the partner for peace making. He preferred unilateralism and saw his mission as consolidating Israel’s existence within secure though not necessarily recognized boundaries. He saw the withdrawal from Gaza as a first step and was determined to continue with a unilateral though not full withdraw in the West Bank. Sharon did not have the support of his own party (the Likud) for this policy, and in order to implement it he broke away from the party and founded Kadima as a centrist party built upon his own persona in cooperation with Shimon Peres and a motley collection of Likud, Labor and other politicians and new recruits. In so doing, Sharon built successfully on his stature mentioned above. Indeed, at the end of 2005, as he was preparing for elections, the polls gave Kadima 40 seats out of 120 in the Knesset which would have enabled Sharon to build a stable effective government. Tragically, Sharon was defeated by his own body, was incapacitated by illness and replaced by Ehud Olmert, whose performance in the polls was less successful and mounted him on a different course.

Sharon’s change of policy was accompanied by a change in ideology and outlook. Prior to his announcement of the unilateral withdraw from Gaza, Sharon began to speak about the ills of occupation and Israel’s inability to pay the cost of occupying the Palestinians. This was a harbinger of the policy change. The leader who was identified for decades with a policy of relying on force and as an advocate of preserving the territorial achievements of 1967 now argued against the ills of occupying another people.

It should be mentioned that Sharon’s critics have argued all along that his change of heart was not genuine, that given the investigation of corruption by himself and his family, he cynically catered to the liberal media and legal establishment.[8] Sharon may not have been free of personal and political calculus, but upon weighing the evidence it seems that these were subordinate considerations and his change of policy reflected a genuine change of heart. Sharon did see through the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, but his illness prevented him from either winning next elections or continuing his policy in the West Bank.

 

Conclusions

It is now time to compare the bold decisions made by Begin, Rabin and Sharon and their conversion into actual policies.

Begin came to power in 1977 after nearly thirty years of failure to win power in parliamentary elections. He was clearly surprised by his victory in May 1977, and assumed power unprepared. He had little time to decide on an overall strategy for dealing with the major issues confronting him as a newly elected leader, unaccepted by a large part of the Israel public and of the international system. The circumstances faced by Begin as a fresh PM were quite daunting. Jimmy Carter, the US president, was determined to push forward a comprehensive solution of the Arab-Israeli conflict whose contours were totally unacceptable to Begin. Begin’s way of dealing with this challenge was to turn the tables and adopt a revolutionary approach to Israel’s major policy dilemma.[9]

In 1992-1993, Rabin faced a different situation. Unlike Begin, he enjoyed broad support in the country and a good relationship with the Bush-Baker administration. Rabin had to resign his position at the end of difficult first term in 1977, but by 1992 he had completely rehabilitated his position. As minister of defense in two national unity governments (1984-1990) he built and served a position of “Mr. national security”. His problem was a policy problem. He inherited the Madrid process, parts of which were not to his liking. He was determined to change Israel’s order of priorities and to divert the large investment of national resources from the settlement project in the West Bank to Israel proper. He did not believe in the prospect of achieving a comprehensive settlement to the Arab-Israeli conflict, but did believe in gradual process in the quest for a settlement. But finding partners for the implementation of this policy was difficult. Syria’s ruler, Hafez al-Asad, refused to enter to a serious discussion of peace with Israel without receiving an initial commitment from full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights. In the Palestinian arena, it became clear that Yasser Arafat completely dominated the delegation to the Washington peace talks and that he was the only effective address for a serious negotiation. Arafat was willing to negotiate with Israel but would not settle on an autonomy plan. In the face of this complex reality, Rabin gradually came to make two bold decisions of depositing hypothetical willingness to withdraw from the Golan in order to open up the negotiation with Syria, and to negotiate with the PLO. In August 1993, it was time to make a choice between the two options. Asad’s disappointing response to the deposit made it easier for Rabin to opt for the Palestinian track. There were no easy decisions to be made, but his decision to sign the Oslo accord was in a way easier than moving on with Syria. Progress with Syria would mean an immediate formal agreement to withdraw from the Golan Heights and to evacuate 18,000 Israeli settlers. The Oslo accords were not a final status agreement. There were many painful concessions that Rabin had to make. Bringing Yasser Arafat and his troops from Tunis to Gaza and parts of the West Bank was not an easy matter, but the Oslo accords were an interim agreement for five years and the really painful decisions such as recognizing Palestinian statehood and withdrawing from the bulk of the West Bank and Gaza were postponed.

Sharon’s tough decisions of 2005 were made after four years of an impressive tenure as PM. The controversial bully of earlier decades became the authoritative and admired PM who defeated the second Intifada, built a successful relationship with Washington and masterminded the Israeli political system. It was this mature, successful leader, who made the far reaching decisions of 2005 with a view to consolidating Israel’s existence and to securing his place in history not just as a great military leader but as a statesman. It is significant that Sharon’s first biography was titled “Warrior”,[10] and a more recent one was tilted “The Shepherd”.[11]

The three leaders and their bold decisions met with varying degrees of success. Begin accomplished a durable peace with Egypt. He was less successful in his dealing with the Palestinian problem and his achievement was marred by the First Lebanon War. The Oslo accords are seen in contemporary Israel as controversial. The Israeli right wing that had objected to them in the first place argues that the Second Intifada and the various waves of terrorism are clear proof of the flaws of the Oslo accords and of their failure. Others argue that while the Oslo process did collapse, some of its positive outcomes and byproducts are still valid: the mutual recognition between Israel and the Palestinian nationalism, Israel’s acceptance in large parts of the Arab world, and the fact that Israel does not have to control the urban parts of the West Bank that are managed by the Palestinian Authority. Sharon’s withdrawal from Gaza is equally controversial. The right wing in Israel argues that Hamas’s takeover in Gaza and the rocket launching from Gaza into Israel that has led to two major military campaigns are clearly proof of the weakness of Sharon’s plan and the failure of its execution. Others, while admitting that the implementation of Sharon’s plan was far from perfect, point to the advantage of Israel and Israeli being out of the Gaza Strip.

Clearly, having the right partners is a key factor in the success or failure of such policies. Begin was lucky to have as partner Anwar Sadat who was willing to make bold decisions and was not interested in details. Sadat fully understood the role of public opinion and media in democratic societies though he himself was a leader of an authoritarian one. He was willing to make a large investment in persuading the Israeli public that the ear of war between Egypt and Israel was over and that Israel could give up the Sinai without jeopardizing its national security. Rabin was unfortunate to have the problematic Hafez al-Asad as partner for the Syrian negotiations and Yasser Arafat for the Palestinian ones. Asad was a tough negotiator and unlike Sadat was not willing to make any gesture in order to help Rabin win over the Israeli public for a peace deal with Syria that would entail full withdrawal from the Golan. When Asad agreed reluctantly, and under American pressure, to make a minor investment in public diplomacy, he did it with such apparent distaste that it ended up having a negative impact on Rabin’s efforts. Arafat had the authority to sign the Oslo accords on behalf of the Palestinian people, but his commitment to a genuine two-state solution remained questionable. He deliberately refrained from taking on Hamas and other terrorist groups, keeping them in reserve as potential allies in the event of another conflict with Israel, and built a corrupt administration in the territories put under his control. Sharon chose not to have a Palestinian partner. He agreed to some coordination with Abu Mazen in implementing the withdrawal from Gaza, but his insistence on an essentially unilateral approach to the issue proved to be a mistake. Sharon’s investment in preparing Israeli public opinion for the radical move in Gaza was minimal.

Both Rabin and Sharon had excellent personal and working relations with the US presidents and their administrations. Begin never built a comfortable relationship with Carter, and ended his term and life with his relationship with Carter riddled with negative elements. Ironically, in July 2013, Jimmy Carter in a speech in London, when offering an optimistic perspective on the current Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, used Begin’s example in order to argue that one could expect Benjamin Netanyahu to make a deal with Abu Mazen. Carter justified his optimism by saying that in his days, he dealt with Menachem Begin, “a former right wing terrorist and the last person you would expect to make peace.”[12]

Indeed, several of the issues raised above figure prominently in the current discourse on the prospect of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. The issue of the Israeli-Syrian agreement seems currently irrelevant. Syria is in the throes of a civil war that may last for some time. The discussion of an Israeli-Syrian agreement would have to wait for the end of the civil war and for the emergence of a stable regime that would be both interested in and capable of making an agreement with Israel. Discussion of further progress in Arab-Israeli relations is strictly limited to the Palestinian issue. The Palestinian leadership under Abu Mazen is at least formally committed to a Two-State solution and insists that a final status agreement must be predicated on term similar to the ones discussed with Ehud Barak in 2000 and Ehud Olmert in 2008. It flatly rejects the idea of an interim agreement or any other agreement that falls short of a final status accord. Benjamin Netanyahu is formally committed to the notion of a Two-State solution but his concept of a final status agreement and of the Palestinian state that would emerge from it is quite distant from those of his predecessor, Ehud Olmert. The main question on the Israeli political agenda is whether Netanyahu would be willing to seek an agreement on terms acceptable on the Palestinians, to the US and to the rest of the international community. If he does that, he would probably be required to follow the course taken by Sharon in 2005, impose it on his own party, risk the prospect of splitting the Likud and having to form a new political entity, and break away from his personal and family legacy. Many observers doubt that Netanyahu can take the ideological and personal leap that would be required for this to happen. Others argue that as he approaches the end of his third term, he, too, is thinking about his legacy and takes a serious view of the dangers presented to Israel by a perpetuation of the status quo. Whether Netanyahu will join Begin, Rabin and Sharon in taking a bold historic decision and in implementing it, or whether he would stay in the group of Israeli prime ministers who chose to perpetuate the status quo, remains an open question.


[1] William B. Quandt, Peace Process: American Diplomacy and the Arab-Israeli Conflict Since 1967 (University of California Press, 2005).

[2] For biographies of Begin see: Eitan Haber, Menahem Begin: The Legend and the Men (New York: Delacorte Press, 1978); Arye Naor, Begin bashilton: Edut ishit (Tel Aviv: Yedioth Aharonot, 1993) [Hebrew]. For a powerful criticism of Begin’s deviation from his original ideology, see: Shmuel Katz, Lo ‘oz velo hadar (Tel Aviv: Dvir, 1981) [Hebrew].

[3] For two accounts of Begin’s negotiations with Egypt by his senior ministers, see: Moshe Dayan, Breakthrough: A Personal Account of the Egypt-Israel Peace Negotiations (Random House, 1981); Ezer Weizman, Hakrav ‘al hashalom: Tatspit ishit (Jerusalem: Edanim Publishers, 1981) [Hebrew].

[4] On Rabin’s strategy in the peace process, see: Itamar Rabinovich, The Lingering Conflict: Israel, the Arabs, and the Middle East, 1948-2011 (Brookings Institution Press, 2011); Itamar Rabinovich, The Brink of Peace: The Israeli-Syrian Negotiations (Princeton University Press, 1999).

[5] Ibid. See also: Uri Savir, 1,100 Days that Changed the Middle East: An Insider’s Account of the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Accords by Israel’s Chief Negotiator (New York: Random House, 1998).

[6] Dov Weissglas, Arik Sharon – rosh memshalah: Mabat ishi (Tel Aviv: Miskal, 2012) [Hebrew]; Elliott Abrams, Tested by Zion: The Bush Administration and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (Cambridge University Press, 2013)

[7] In a meeting of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. See: Ha’aretz, April 24, 2002.

[8] See for instance, Moshe Yaalon, Derekh ’arukah ktsarah (Tel Aviv, Yedioth Aharonot, 2008) [Hebrew]

[9] See Haber, ibid, and Naor, ibid, ft 2 above.

[10] Ariel Sharon with David Chanoff, Warrior: The Autobiography of Ariel Sharon (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989).

[11] Nir Hefez and Gadi Bloom, Haro‘eh: Sipur hayav shel Ariel Sharon (Tel Aviv: Miskal, 2005) [Hebrew].

[12] Quoted in: Roger Cohen, “Netanyahu the Peacemaker.” The New York Times, July 29, 2013.


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