Everyone these days seems to be wondering whether Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is really serious about the peace process. Is he following in the footsteps of Begin, becoming a genuine champion of peace? Or is he merely another Shamir, a reluctant partner until the end? On Sunday, Jeff Barak penned a piece in the Jerusalem Post arguing for parallels with Shamir. Two days later, Roger Cohen made the case in the New York Times that we may be witnessing an earnest Begin-esque transformation.
There’s evidence for and against both positions. Cohen is right to point out that Netanyahu’s recent decision to release 104 Palestinian terrorists with blood on their hands was not “the action of an Israeli prime minister who is unserious about final status negotiations.” Netanyahu has also recently become more sure-footed in his statements of support for the two-state solution, which is a promising sign. At the same time, as Barak notes, “Netanyahu has a record of inactivity on the peace process that would make Shamir proud,” and just this past January he cobbled together what is arguably the most right-wing coalition in Israel’s history.
So how can we reconcile Netanyahu’s recent constructive behavior with his unconstructive and not-so-distant past? The most plausible explanation is that Netanyahu has in fact become serious about the Palestinian issue because he sees it as a necessary component of his strategy to thwart Iran. In this respect, sacrilege as it may seem, Netanyahu may actually most closely resemble Yitzhak Rabin. Here’s why:Like Netanyahu, Rabin saw Iran’s nuclear ambitions and hegemonic designs as Israel’s number one security challenge. In an interview with NBC in July of 1994, Rabin decried the growing Iranian influence across the region and urged the world “to wake up and realize the tremendous danger not only to Israel, not only to the peace between Arab countries and people and Israel, but also the danger to moderate Arab regimes and Muslim regimes...” Critically, Rabin recognized that the moderate Arab states in Israel’s immediate surroundings were just as worried about the Iranian threat as was Israel, which created a powerful convergence of interests and the potential for devising a cooperative approach to the problem. If Israel could create a “circle of peace” with these neighboring states, Rabin reasoned, they could collectively isolate Iran and insulate themselves against its influence. Yet, as long as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict festered, Israel and her Arab neighbors would be unable to forge the cooperative alliance Rabin envisioned. And so, despite his great reservations about Yasser Arafat, Rabin felt compelled to try to make an agreement with him. According to former Rabin advisor Yehuda Avner, Rabin’s desire to thwart Iran was the overarching reason behind his to decision to finally shake Arafat’s hand on the White House lawn.
Rabin’s insights into the link between Iran and the Palestinian conflict are as valid today as they were during his time. What’s more, Netanyahu, who earlier this month reiterated that the Iranian nuclear threat “is the most urgent matter of all,” is even more fixated on Iran than was Rabin. Moreover, the active and constructive role the Arab League has played in efforts to restart peace talks throughout the spring – including by revamping and reissuing the Saudi-led Arab Peace Initiative – has made Rabin’s vision of a “circle of peace” a more salient and realistic seeming foreign policy objective. All the while, the relatively warm reception the West has given to the new Iranian President Hassan Rohani may have added extra urgency to Netanyahu's search to find regional, as opposed to Western, partners in the fight against Iran.
This being the case, it should come as no surprise that in classic Rabin fashion, Netanyahu identified “preventing the establishment of an additional Iranian-sponsored terrorist state on Israel's borders” as one of his two rationales for entering peace talks (the other reason given was to prevent Israel from becoming a bi-national state). Netanyahu has not drawn an equally explicit connection between the peace process and Iran’s nuclear program, but it’s not difficult to see why he might hesitate to make the link publicly.
To be sure, the parallels drawn here between Rabin’s and Netanyahu’s rationales for tackling the Palestinian conflict do not in any way suggest that Netanyahu will prove to be as effective or committed a peacemaker as was Rabin. Rabin possessed leadership skills and political courage in his dealings with the Palestinians that have not yet been evidenced in Netanyahu. But what the parallels do suggest is that, like Rabin, Netanyahu's hawkish desire to thwart Iran may have spurred a genuine desire to advance peace.