Western governments and media critical of the newly elected government coalition led by Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu failed to ask themselves how it happened that the likes of Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir are now prominent ministers in Netanyahu’s government. The same critics in the west labeling Smotrich and Ben Gvir “extremists,” haven’t attached that title to Mahmoud Abbas.
Had the western critics of Israel bothered to consult history as it unfolded since the Oslo Accords of 1993, they could easily grasp the political shift that occurred in Israeli politics. In fact, the turn to the political right began in May 1977, when Menahem Begin became Israel’s first right-of-center Israeli prime minister. It was because of disillusionment with the socialist, center-left Labor party who led stagnant economies, and failed to bring the yearned-for peace. Menahem Begin, who like Smotrich and Ben Gvir was labeled an “extremist” and “terrorist” by some in the western media, made peace with Israel’s most important Arab foe – Egypt.
The Israeli public elected Itzhak Rabin in 1992. It was an endorsement of the peace platform with the Palestinians that the Labor coalition initiated. The Oslo negotiations were supposedly secret, hinted at by the Israeli media of a breakthrough and a final peaceful solution with the Palestinians. Earlier, at the 1991 Madrid conference initiated by the Bush Senior administration following the US triumph in the Gulf War, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) was excluded from the negotiations that included a Syrian, Israeli, and a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation comprised of Palestinian notables. Intimidated by Yasser Arafat and the PLO, little progress was made on the Israeli-Palestinian track.
Toward the end of the Reagan administration an attempt was made to negotiate with Arafat’s PLO, if Arafat would recognize “Israel’s right to exist,” and “renounce terrorism”. In December 1988, this reporter held an international press conference at the Geneva, Switzerland United Nations headquarters to warn of Arafat’s duplicity. The US administration was nevertheless persistent in seeking a dialogue with Arafat. In Geneva at the same time, Arafat failed to say the words the US required, and this reporter witnessed it. Eventually, the US accepted Arafat’s Algiers halfhearted words. The US then opened a dialogue through its ambassador in Tunis, Robert H. Pelletreau, Jr. Six months later, a terrorist faction belonging to Arafat’s PLO landed a terror team in Palmachim, a coastal point south of Tel Aviv, with the aim of killing Israeli civilians. It was meant to be a spectacular terror mission at the heart of Israel. The US was forced to suspend negotiations with the Palestinians.
Arafat’s PLO support for Saddam Hussein’s brutal invasion of Kuwait had isolated the Palestinians in the Arab world and the West. It was Shimon Peres, Israel’s foreign minister in Rabin’s government, who endorsed the secret negotiations with the PLO in Oslo. It rescued Arafat from obscurity and isolation at the PLO’s weakest point. In September 1993, President Clinton presided over the signing of the Oslo Accords. Speaking at a Johannesburg, South African mosque on May 10, 1994, soon after Arafat had returned triumphantly to Gaza, he called for “Jihad to liberate Jerusalem.” Arafat alluded to the Oslo Accords as being NO MORE than the Hudaybiyyah agreement signed between the Prophet Mohammad and the Quraysh tribe of Mecca, which the Prophet soon violated when he got stronger, attacking his Quraysh enemies and conquering Mecca.
To the Israelis, the euphoria that accompanied the Oslo Accords turned to disillusionment. To the left-of-center Israelis it seemed that the idea of a two-state solution with the Palestinians was merely a pipedream.
A spate of suicide bombings in major Israeli cities between 1994-1996, including the blowing up of buses, restaurants, etc. convinced moderate and even those who professed to be ardent peaceniks, that it was a zero-sum situation with the Palestinians. It led to the 1996 election of Likud’s young contender, Benjamin Netanyahu.
Hamas strongman Mahmoud Zahar, confirmed in September 2010, that ten-years earlier, Yasser Arafat was playing a double game, encouraging Islamic militants to attack inside Israel while publicly insisting that he was trying to stop the violence. Arafat’s prisons became revolving doors for terrorists with blood on their hands. Arafat’s knack for terror and violence came just when Palestinian statehood was attainable.
In 1999, Ehud Barak, the Labor party leader replaced Netanyahu as Prime Minister. President Clinton sent some of his campaign people to assist Barak in the election. A year later, in July 2000, President Bill Clinton secured a summit at Camp David with Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak. Hopes were high again in Israel for an end of the conflict with the Palestinians. Barak made far-reaching concessions to Arafat with Clinton’s encouragement. According to historian Benny Morris in The Guardian (May 22, 2002), “For the first time in history of the conflict the American president put on the table a proposal based on UNSC resolution 242 and 338, very close to the Palestinian demands, and Arafat refused even to accept it as a basis for negotiations, walked out of the room, and deliberately turned to terrorism.” Arafat never intended to reach a peace settlement or sign an “end of conflict” with Israel.
A year after the Camp David fiasco, Likud’s Ariel Sharon was elected prime minister. The Israeli electorate once again moved rightward, forced to admit that there will never be peace with Arafat’s Palestinians. The Second Intifada led by Arafat killed over 1,000 Israelis, mostly women and children. Israelis had no more illusions about a two-state solution and peace. Arafat’s mission was to replace the Jewish state with an Arab Palestinian Muslim state.
In August 2005, PM Sharon carried out a unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, abandoning flourishing Jewish settlements with more than 8,000 residents. Sharon agreed to leave lavish greenhouses as an economic asset for the Palestinians. They destroyed them. Israel’s abandonment of territory to the Palestinians didn’t bring peace closer. On the contrary, Gaza became a launching pad for Hamas’ rocket attacks against Israeli civilians. This convinced most Israelis that the left-of-center parties’ laborious efforts at peace with the Palestinians were futile.
The concessions Ehud Olmert made to Mahmoud Abbas in 2008 exceeded even those made by Barak. Olmert succeeded Sharon who died after a prolonged coma. In addition to swapping territories with the would-be Palestinian state, Olmert was willing to share Jerusalem as capitals of both the Palestinian state and Israel. He proposed to admit 5,000 diaspora Palestinians into Israel, to arrange for compensation for other Palestinian refugees, and offered a tunnel that would connect the West Bank with Gaza through Israel. Like his predecessor Arafat, Abbas walked out, fearing to commit to an end to the conflict with Israel. Soon afterward Netanyahu and the Likud won the 2009 elections, with Netanyahu becoming the longest serving Israeli prime minister.
While demographics might have played a role in the shift toward the political right, it was primarily the realization by Israelis that there was no hope to end the conflict with the Palestinians in the foreseeable future. They sought an Israeli government that will focus on a more secure Israel, one that will effectively combat Palestinian terror, and not compromise with it. Smotrich and Ben Gvir’s party emerged as the third largest party in Israel with 14 seats in the Knesset, because they offered a decisive stance against the Palestinians.
Should a courageous Palestinian leader emerge willing to make peace with Israel, the political landscape in the Jewish state might change yet again.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons