For not the first time in his political career, Benjamin Netanyahu has become Israel’s Great Right Hope – a figure looked to with increasing longing by an electorate fed up with the blunders and corruption of the Olmert government.
But it was less than a decade ago that Netanyahu, after a scandal-marred and profoundly underwhelming term as prime minister, was soundly defeated for reelection by Labor’s Ehud Barak. In the weeks following his ouster, Netanyahu took quite a beating in the media – a state of affairs to which he ordinarily would have been accustomed, if not for the fact that those now throwing some of the hardest punches included many of his former political and ideological allies.
About Netanyahu it could plausibly be argued that, with the possible exception of Richard Nixon during the climactic months of the Watergate drama and George W. Bush as this is being written, there has never been a democratically elected head of state, certainly none in recent memory, so universally vilified (by friend and foe alike) in his waning time in office.
Indeed, so thoroughly had Netanyahu offended or insulted or disappointed almost everyone within his own party and natural base of support – from Yitzhak Shamir to Benny Begin to Natan Sharansky to Yitzhak Mordechai to others too numerous to mention – that when the time came to concede defeat on election night, he was virtually alone on stage with his wife and his political mentor, Moshe Arens.
The revulsion felt in Israel toward Netanyahu extended from columnists on the Left to their colleagues in the middle and on the Right, and the sentiment was very much shared by their counterparts in the U.S.
Few of the analysts who set about pondering Bibi’s fate in American journals of opinion – even those publications that in the past had been generally sympathetic to Netanyahu – shed tears for the man who, in the words of Adam J. Levitan in The Weekly Standard, “ensured the disintegration of the Israeli right” by his embrace of the Oslo peace process.
By far the most devastating attack on what remained at the time of Netanyahu’s reputation came from the Middle East analyst Daniel Pipes, whose article in the July 5, 1999 issue of The New Republic, “The Road to Damascus,” made a convincing case that Netanyahu, as first reported in Haaretz a month earlier, had been prepared to make concessions to Syria that were considerably greater than anything ever contemplated by either of his immediate, supposedly more dovish predecessors, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres.
Pipes began his piece with a dramatic exchange from a debate the previous April between Netanyahu and his former defense minister, Yitzhak Mordechai, who was then running against his ex-boss:
“In a discussion of Syria, Netanyahu declared that he would not ‘give [Syrian President Hafez] Assad what Barak is willing to give Assad.’ Mordechai stunned the Israeli electorate with his dramatic reply. He coldly dared Netanyahu to repeat his claim. ‘Look me in the eye, Bibi … look me in the eye,’ he demanded. Netanyahu did not repeat his statement.”
With information gleaned “from several sources with first-hand knowledge of the talks,” Pipes alleged that in 1998 Netanyahu, coming off a series of mishaps and intent on bolstering his sagging image, began indirect negotiations with Assad through a series of secret meetings between some prominent American go-betweens and the Syrian leader – and that Netanyahu, desperate for a breakthrough, gave in on demand after demand until in the end his capitulation was total: “Israel,” Pipes wrote, “would…return to the 1967 lines.”
But the deal was not to be, because Mordechai, and later Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon, refused to endorse it. As Mordechai would taunt Netanyahu in the aforementioned debate, “More than once…I acted as a responsible defense minister of this country and prevented what had to be prevented. You know things would have looked very different otherwise.”
Netanyahu’s camp vigorously denied the story, but Pipes was not impressed. “Anyone who has followed Netanyahu’s career,” he wrote, “will instantly recognize in this episode the man’s well-established pattern of speaking loudly but carrying a small stick…. [He] gave more to the Syrians than did either [Rabin or Peres]. And, judging by new reports coming out of Israel, he also gave away more than Barak would.”
Pipes was wrong about Barak, who as prime minister would prove willing to give away a lot more than Netanyahu ever envisioned. But the depths to which Netanyahu had sunk in the estimation of his erstwhile supporters bears keeping in mind as he continues his political comeback.