Give Bibi a Chance

As a longtime supporter of the Israeli peace movement, I believe that it would behoove everyone to give Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu some breathing space.

Even before Netanyahu's new government was sworn in, skeptics and pundits warned that he would both isolate Israel internationally and refuse to engage in good-faith negotiations with the Palestinians or Israel's other neighbors.

The "real aim of Israel's recently elected government is against peace," Syrian President Bashar al-Assad declared at an Arab League summit in Qatar. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas told reporters: "The Palestinians must tell the world that Netanyahu does not believe in peace, so how can we cooperate with him?"

And a New York Times editorial worried: "Netanyahu has understandably raised alarms with the expectation that his foreign minister will be an ultranationalist leader with what are widely considered to be anti-Arab views."

Much of the discussion has focused on Netanyahu's unwillingness to explicitly endorse the creation of an independent Palestinian state, something both he and his Likud Party have long opposed. But, not so long ago, so too did his predecessors as prime minister, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert -- as well as Tzipi Livni, his leading opponent.

And Netanyahu's record as prime minister in 1996-1999 suggests he may be substantially more pragmatic and moderate than his often rejectionist rhetoric when out of power suggests.

Clichés by definition are rooted in reality. Richard Nixon going to China; Menachem Begin giving Sinai back to Egypt -- milestones are sometimes reached by the most unlikely protagonists. Perhaps Netanyahu -- flanked on his right by hawkish Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and on his left by Defense Minister Ehud Barak, head of the once dominant Labor Party -- will emulate Begin (and, for that matter, Yitzhak Rabin).

Or, of course, perhaps not.

Still, it was hardly a foregone conclusion that Rabin -- who, as Defense Minister during the first Intifada of 1988-89 ordered Israeli soldiers to "break the bones" of Palestinian demonstrators -- would shake Yasser Arafat's hand on the White House lawn in 1993.

And few could have foreseen in 2000 that Sharon would not only unilaterally disengage from Gaza but would leave the Likud together with Olmert and Livni to form the centrist, diplomacy-inclined Kadima Party.

And there is Netanyahu's record:

* In January 1997, having previously vehemently denounced both Rabin's accords with the Palestine Liberation Organization and any dealings whatsoever with Arafat, he nonetheless met the PLO chairman to enter into an agreement that provided for Israel's withdrawal from the biblical West Bank city of Hebron.

* In October 1998, Netanyahu lunched with Arafat in Gaza before meeting with him at the Wye River Plantation in Maryland to negotiate a significant US-sponsored interim Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. He then shook hands with Arafat at the signing ceremony at the White House.

During those negotiations, Netanyahu associated himself with the fundamental proposition, long rejected by the Likud, that Israel must be prepared to make significant territorial compromise.

Acceptance of a peace process by dovish Israelis and Palestinians is largely irrelevant. For any such process to be successful, it must have the support of precisely those Israeli and Palestinian mainstream individuals and groups most likely to distrust its very feasibility.

Consider, too, the government Netanyahu has formed. If he had simply wanted to dismantle the Israeli-Palestinian peace process of the past 15 years, he could have established a narrow coalition that catered to the ideologues of the hard-line right. Instead, he chose to form a more centrist government that includes the peace-oriented Labor Party. And his coalition agreement with Labor explicitly provides that his government would respect all of Israel's international agreements.

No, Netanyahu won't become the Peace Now poster child anytime soon. His very legitimate antagonism toward any type of terrorists makes him an unlikely interlocutor with any Palestinian entity that includes Hamas.

Yet there are his remarks, the day before taking office, about Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier kidnapped by Palestinian terrorists almost three years ago. Netanyahu said he would "do everything in my power to ensure" Shalit's "speedy return, healthy and whole, to his family's bosom." Presumably, this must include negotiating, directly or indirectly, with Hamas.

Once a principle is modified, not to say violated, for whatever reason, other exceptions become conceivable, even possible. Less than a week before taking office, Netanyahu told an economic conference in Jerusalem: "The Palestinians must understand that they have in our government a partner for peace, security, and for economic development of the Palestinian economy." If past is prologue, he may well be true to his word. He needs to be given the opportunity to prove himself.

Menachem Z. Rosensaft is adjunct professor of law at Cornell Law School. In December 1988, he was one of five American Jews who met with Yasser Arafat and other senior PLO leaders in Stockholm.

This article was first published in the New York Post