On the second week of July 1996, less than a year after Rabin’s assassination and a month after a narrow victory over Shimon Peres, then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traveled to the US for an official visit. I accompanied him on the way and during the visit.
The most prominent event during that trip was not Netanyahu’s meeting with Clinton, who had yet to recover from mourning Rabin and viewed Israel’s new prime minister as a sort of alien. Against the backdrop of the progressive Clinton administration, Bibi appeared to be a delusional statesman.
That visit is remembered for the media’s onslaught against Bibi’s wife, Sarah, and the speech delivered by Netanyahu before the two houses of Congress. I was there, I heard the speech, and I kept a copy of it in my private archive. I read it again this week: With the exception of two or three sentences, Netanyahu could have delivered the same speech to Congress this time around, had he been invited to speak there.
It was a visionary speech, and in many ways it marked the essence of Netanyahu’s worldview, which has changed less than what is commonly believed to be the case. As it turns out, the Middle East has not changed much either.
Netanyahu dedicated a significant part of his speech to Israel’s desire for peace. We have no quarrel with Islam, he said as the audience cheered on, and we reject out of hand the claims of an inevitable clash of civilizations. In order to achieve peace, Netanyahu pledged to renew talks with the Palestinian Authority on implementing the Oslo Accords. Agreements must be honored, he said, adding that Israel would be willing to embark on final-status talks on this basis.
Netanyahu declared that peace was premised on three pillars: Security, reciprocity, and democracy. Security meant
The third component of peace – human rights and democracy – was perceived as a surprising innovation at the time Netanyahu delivered his speech. The fact that an Israeli prime minister called for democratization of the Middle East and conditioned comprehensive peace with Arab states on a change of regime there was met with great skepticism by America’s public opinion. Keep in mind this was 1996.
Netanyahu raised another urgent issue in his speech: Iran. Should Iran acquire nuclear weapons, he warned, this would have destructive implications not only for the Middle East but for the whole of humanity. He urged the international community to prevent it, declaring that the US and Israel, which he said were at the forefront of the struggle, should and can do more.
Netanyahu did not even hint at willingness for concessions on Israel’s part, but mentioned that Jerusalem, as Israel’s capital, will never be divided again.
Thirteen years ago I was a party to the first Washington trip of a young Israeli prime minister who spoke fluent English and who boasted classic conservative ideology. The fact that Netanyahu could have delivered his speech from 13 years ago in his current visit in the US, shows us how little had been achieved since then en route to Israeli-Arab peace. In fact, almost nothing had been achieved.
A final-status agreement with the Palestinians? It’s more distant than ever. Peace with Syria? Not on the agenda. End to terrorism? Hamas rules Gaza while Hizbullah controls south Lebanon. Dividing Jerusalem? Impossible; more Jewish neighborhoods, and a fence, have been built. Democracy and human rights at Arab states? No significant progress. Reciprocity and normalization of ties? No, but rather, ties have cooled off. Preventing Iran from securing nuclear weapons? Iran is closer than ever to securing military nuclear capabilities. A Palestinian state? The Palestinians and Jews are quickly moving away from the notion of “two states for two peoples”; the Jews aren’t really ready for it, while the Palestinians aren’t really interested in it.
Three parties (Labor, Likud, and Kadima) were in power in Israel since July 1996. In the US, two presidents entered the White House during that time; meanwhile, Arafat died and was succeeded by Mahmoud Abbas. Yet the Arab-Israeli stagnation – as well as the intra-Arab one – merely worsened. How depressing.