Back to the Future with Bibi and the Clintons

How Netanyahu’s peace efforts have been thwarted for a decade and a half.

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.”

But in July 2010, Netanyahu gave a speech in New York City hosted by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. I attended that speech and noticed something the prime minister said in response to a question from the audience. “Everybody knows that there are Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem that under any peace plan will remain where they are,” Netanyahu said. Uri Heilman of JTA noticed it too. “The implication of Netanyahu’s remark—that other neighborhoods of Jerusalem may not remain ‘where they are,’ becoming part of an eventual Palestinian state—was the first hint that the Israeli leader may be flexible on the subject of Jerusalem,” Heilman wrote.

So Netanyahu is three for three; he is to Rabin’s left on all major issues. Netanyahu, more importantly, is much more dedicated to making progress on the peace front than he is given credit for. In May, Daniel Doron, president of the Israel Center for Social and Economic Progress, authored an article for The New Republic reminding policymakers that the last time the West Bank had a booming economy was also the last time there was anything close to peace. His contention was that the concept of “economic peace” is not only viable, but has a track record of actual success—unlike other tactics that have been tried.

Then Doron noted that Netanyahu had proposed a similar plan this time around, having learned from experience what works and what doesn’t. “But his plan fell on deaf ears among the political-solution addicts at Foggy Bottom, whose misguided faith in the PA mirrored their support for other dictatorial regimes across the region,” Doron lamented.

Perhaps history will catch up with Bibi’s opponents the way it always has. The Clinton administration ignored Netanyahu’s proposal for a land swap, and now it’s all the rage. The Obama administration dismissed “economic peace,” but Netanyahu has pressed forward with elements of it anyway, and the economy of the West Bank and Gaza saw GDP growth of 9 percent in 2010.

Here is the International Monetary Fund’s assessment of that growth: “In Gaza, the strong recovery was driven by the steady easing by the Government of Israel (GoI) since mid-2010 of restrictions on imports of consumer goods and inputs for public investment projects, following the tightening of controls in 2006. In the West Bank, growth continued to benefit from higher private sector confidence underpinned by good management and reforms by the Palestinian Authority (PA) supported by donor aid. It also benefited from measures to ease restrictions in early 2010, including the removal of internal obstacles and enhancing the capacity of crossing points with Israel.”

That’s a pretty explicit description of the degree to which Israel is responsible for improving the economic situation in the Palestinian territories. It’s not just removing checkpoints, either. According to a cable released in the WikiLeaks document dump, the State Department was told in November 2008 that if Netanyahu became prime minister, “Netanyahu's vision would have Israel working with Jordan and foreign donors to inject large-scale investment in the West Bank to improve the daily lives of Palestinians.”

Binyamin Netanyahu has been the leading cheerleader for foreign investment into the West Bank. And, as the IMF statistics show, the combination of foreign donations and investment and the removal of checkpoints make up the majority of the reason for the Palestinian territories’ economic growth.

Hopefully, we won’t have to wait another fourteen years for the U.S. to support progress in the Palestinian territories.

Seth Mandel is a writer specializing in Middle Eastern politics and a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Horowitz Freedom Center.