BBC NEWS
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 
one metre.

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 
said.

But history has shown that time and again, the Israeli right has indeed moved.

Right-wing withdrawals

To begin with, there was Menachem Begin, the first right-wing Israeli prime 
minister.

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 
1967 war.

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.

'No regrets'

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 
surfboard.

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 
celebrating.

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 
receptive.

"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 
prospect.

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 
says.

"But I don't believe there is a strong opposition if there is a real peace deal 
with Syria."

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:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/2/hi/middle_east/7875134.stm

Published: 2009/02/07 09:25:22 GMT

© BBC MMIX

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