Can Israel's right deliver peace?
By Tim Franks
BBC News, Jerusalem
It took several minutes before Binyamin Netanyahu was able to speak.
On that bright afternoon, he had arrived at the City of David, the
archaeological site in Jerusalem close to the Old City.
It is a place which the rest of the world regards as occupied territory.
Around Mr Netanyahu was a seething, noisy, bad-tempered mass of cameramen and
reporters. They pressed in on him from all sides.
Mr Netanyahu's PR representatives finally managed to persuade them to step back
It was just enough space for the man whom most Israelis expect to be their next
prime minister after general elections on 10 February to deliver his message.
"[For] 3,000 years, this place has been the capital of the Jewish people. And a
government of Likud will keep Jerusalem united, under Israeli sovereignty," he
But history has shown that time and again, the Israeli right has indeed moved.
To begin with, there was Menachem Begin, the first right-wing Israeli prime
Thirty years ago, he concluded a peace treaty with Egypt, which involved Israel
withdrawing from the Sinai peninsula - a huge area Israel had conquered in the
In the nineties, in his first tenure as prime minister, Mr Netanyahu agreed to
hand over parts of the West Bank, and much of Hebron, to Palestinian control.
Four years ago, Ariel Sharon took Israeli settlers out of Gaza.
Neither of these withdrawals brought a peace deal closer.
Indeed, both men won power, in part, precisely because they positioned
themselves as rejecting the Oslo accords of the early nineties.
And the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the Labour prime minister who signed
those accords, robbed history of discovering whether significant territorial
concessions would have followed.
What we do know is that the withdrawals ordered by Mr Netanyahu and Mr Sharon
were reviled by those on the hard right.
And, according to Silvan Shalom, deputy prime minister and foreign minister in
the last Likud government, they exploded the myth of the left as the only
partners of peace.
"History shows us that the leftists never withdrew from an inch of any
territory," he says, from his 29th-storey office in Tel Aviv.
He adds quickly that he is not suggesting that the next Israeli government
should now withdraw from any territory.
"But I would like you to know that anyone who is trying to blame us, that if we
come to power, there will be a confrontation with the Palestinians, they're
absolutely wrong. History shows that we always have better relations with the
Arab world and the Palestinians, than those coming from the left," he says.
And what of those who have had to do the leaving? Amnon Be'eri is one of them:
he marks, on a map above his desk, the point in the northern Sinai where he and
his family spent his teenage years.
The settlement of Yamit was home to about 2,500 people.
Mr Be'eri says it was idyllic, "an amazing beach - wide, thick sand,
tropical... the ultimate". For his Bar Mitzvah, his parents bought him a
But despite the attractions, he says that he and the rest of his family
willingly left, when the the Sinai was traded in 1982 for a peace agreement
between Israel and Egypt.
"At least in our family," he recalls, "we never regretted it.
"I think it was a good price to pay for peace. Egypt was the largest and
strongest enemy of Israel, and since the withdrawal from the Sinai, it's a very
reliable and stable border."
The sense of certainty that the right will win this election runs across
Israel, and into places such as Ofra, one of the longest-established
settlements in the West Bank.
You might expect that the settlers here would be delight at the apparent
resurgence of the right.
But Yisrael Harel, a former chairman of the settlers' association, is not
His dream, and that of other ideological settlers, that the Israeli government
will announce the annexation of the West Bank, remains distant, he says.
Indeed, he has a warning, which he delivers only slightly tongue-in-cheek.
"Historically, only leaders from the so-called right have made territorial
concessions. So paradoxically - although for me it's not a paradox, because no
leader of the left will dare to do it - those who are pro-concessions to the
Arabs should vote Netanyahu."
Which is not to say that Mr Netanyahu, should he become prime minister, would
be about to withdraw from the West Bank.
Peace with Syria?
But further north, there are the Golan Heights. The Golan is not part of
historic Palestine; rather, it was conquered from Syria in the war of 1967.
And as Tom Segev, one of Israel's foremost historians, points out, should the
Americans be keen to push a peace deal with Syria, Mr Netanyahu might be
"Netanyahu is a man who thinks America, he grew up in America," says Mr Segev.
"He may well go for a whole new strategy of moving Syria away from Iran. And in
that context he may well go for a peace agreement that inevitably would involve
the withdrawal of Israelis from the Golan."
Likud insists that withdrawal from anywhere is not part of its platform.
And all the signs are that Israel has shifted to the right, in large part
because many Israelis no longer believe further peace agreements are a serious
But leading Israeli statistics expert Prof Camil Fuchs says that, while there
may currently be majorities against withdrawing from the West Bank or the
Golan, or the division of Jerusalem, these majorities may be soft, particularly
when it comes to negotiations with Syria.
"In terms of the Golan, today the public opinion is against withdrawal," he
"But I don't believe there is a strong opposition if there is a real peace deal
Prof Fuchs draws a comparison with the failure of Israel's unilateral
withdrawal from Gaza to bring peace.
"If you do an agreement with Syria, Syria will be behind this treaty, and they
are not going to open fire," he says.
Whatever the outcome of this election, few Israelis are predicting significant
diplomatic shifts any time soon.
But Israeli history has shown that negotiating deals and granting concessions
is not just the preserve of the left.
Story from BBC NEWS:
Published: 2009/02/07 09:25:22 GMT
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