The headline itself was unremarkable: “Clinton cautions Netanyahu not to antagonize Palestinians.” The text of the story wouldn’t raise any eyebrows either—Clinton tells Netanyahu that he shouldn’t hold up tax payments to the Palestinian leadership despite their support for terrorism, and there is an implicit sense of disapproval on Clinton’s part for the building of Jewish housing in Jerusalem because it would supposedly violate a settlement freeze.
It’s the date of the story that is notable. It is an Associated Press dispatch from August 7, 1997. The Clinton in this story is President Bill, not Secretary Hillary. The Jewish housing the U.S. is upset about is in Har Homa, and the Palestinian leader is Yasser Arafat.
To the casual observer, the story is just another example that the more things change, the more they stay the same. But the truth is it highlights something else: that Binyamin Netanyahu’s efforts to make progress on the peace process have been thwarted now for a decade and a half, mostly because whoever happened to be the sitting American president during this time had different ideas of how to reach the same goal.
For example, on March 16, 1997, the Associated Press reported that diplomats from the U.S., Russia, European Union, Japan, Norway, Jordan, and Egypt met for four hours with Arafat (the Israelis were excluded, of course) to help brainstorm ways to keep the peace process moving. One idea that was not discussed, according to the AP, was a proposal from Netanyahu for a land swap, in which Israel would keep some West Bank settlements but provide the Palestinians with Israeli land to make up for it.
The idea was way ahead of its time. In fact, as Dore Gold recently pointed out in The Weekly Standard, support for land swaps has always been tenuous at best, and the recent popularity of the idea (such as it is) is mostly a historical aberration. Netanyahu risked his popularity fourteen years ago with the land swap proposal, and it was roundly ignored by the U.S., EU and other negotiating partners.
Netanyahu was always more reasonable than the media made him out to be. This time around, the Israeli public seems to clearly appreciate this fact. Historian Yaacov Lozowick, writing after Netanyahu’s speech before a joint session of Congress, noted that Netanyahu has actually broken new ground.
“We’ve come a long way from Golda Meir saying ‘there is no Palestinian nation’, and indeed, we’ve come a long way from the positions of Yitzchak Rabin, remembered worldwide as a brave Israeli leader seeking peace: Rabin never said there’d be a sovereign Palestine, he never intended to move back to the lines of 1967, and he never would have dreamed of dividing Jerusalem,” Lozowick wrote. “On the first two, Netanyahu, for all his verbal gymnastics, is to Rabin’s left. Moreover, the assumption all over Israel’s media today is that he enjoys broad support in the Israeli electorate for his positions.”
I’ll go a step further: On Jerusalem, too, he is to Rabin’s left—and to the left of some notable peaceniks. Here is Oslo architect Yossi Beilin in June 1997: “Any solution should be based on a unified Jerusalem and a demilitarized Palestinian state, not far from the 1967 borders.”
And Thomas Friedman was certainly on the same page, writing in September of that year: “The issue today is not whether Jerusalem will remain the unified capital of Israel, but whether it will be the habitable capital of Israel. Anyone who has visited Jerusalem lately knows Israel’s hold over the city is unchallenged, and I’m glad it is.”