Going Wobbly in Israel; Prime Ministers Renege on Promises

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Two patterns have shaped Israel's history since 1992 and go far to explain Israel's predicament today. First, every elected prime minister has broken his word on how he would deal with the Arabs. Second, each one of them has adopted an unexpectedly concessionary approach.

Here is one example of deception from each of the four prime ministers:

m Yitzhak Rabin promised the Israeli public immediately after winning office in June 1992 that "with the PLO [Palestinian Liberation Organization] as an organization, I will not negotiate." A year later, however, he did precisely that. Mr. Rabin defended dealing with Yasser Arafat by saying he had found no other Palestinians to do business with, so to "advance peace and find a solution," he had to turn to the PLO.

m Benyamin Netanyahu promised before his election in 1996 that under his leadership, Israel "will never descend from the Golan." In 1998, however, as I established in the New Republic and Bill Clinton just confirmed in his memoirs, Mr. Netanyahu changed his mind and planned to offer Damascus the entire Golan in return for a peace treaty.

* Ehud Barak flat-out promised during his May 1999 campaign a "Jerusalem, united and under our rule forever, period." In July 2000, however, at the Camp David II summit, he offered much of eastern Jerusalem to the Palestinian Authority.

* Ariel Sharon won a landslide victory in January 2003 over his Labor opponent, Amram Mitzna, who called for "evacuating the settlements from Gaza." Mr. Sharon ridiculed this approach, saying that it "would bring the terrorism centers closer to [Israel's] population centers." In December 2003, however, Mr. Sharon adopted Mr. Mitzna's unilateral withdrawal idea.

Prime ministers sometimes complain about other ones breaking their word. Mr. Netanyahu, for example, pointed out in August 1995 that Mr. Rabin had "promised in his election campaign not to talk with the PLO, not to give up territory during this term of office, and not to establish a Palestinian state. He is breaking all these promises one by one." Of course, when he got to office, Mr. Netanyahu also broke his promises "one by one."

What prompts each of Israel's recent prime ministers to renege on his resolute intentions and instead adopt a policy of unilateral concessions?

In some cases, it is a matter of expediency, notably for Mr. …