Netanyahu as Prime Minister
The shift from Labor to Likud brought with it a change in the substance and style of Israel’s peace process strategy and tactics toward peacemaking. Under the Labor governments of Rabin and Peres, Israel made gains in its quest for peace and the normalization of relations with the Palestinians and neighboring Arab countries. Direct bilateral negotiations were held between Israel and its immediate Arab neighbors—Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and the Palestinians.
Agreements were concluded between Israel and the Palestinians and Israel and Jordan. Nevertheless, the outcome of the May 29, 1996 election, held against a background of terrorist bombings, indicated that the majority of Israelis perceived Labor’s peace strategy as riskier than Likud’s and consequently voted in favor of what was envisioned as a more controlled and balanced approach.
Netanyahu’s rhetoric during the campaign and his record as Likud leader suggested that he would modify Israel’s approach to the peace process. Netanyahu promised Israeli voters that he would achieve a “secure peace” and that while he accepted the reality of the Oslo framework for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, he would never accept a Palestinian state. The prospects for peace with the Palestinians appeared bleak as Netanyahu assumed the premiership, and the ArabIsraeli conflict remained the country’s most important problem.
Netanyahu’s tenure in office was marked by an effort to establish a government based on the popular mandate as a prime minister chosen by the people, rather than as head of the coalition government required by the outcome of the Knesset elections. But the reality was that Netanyahu was dependent on a fractioned Knesset and a coalition government. He suffered from discord on both domestic and foreign policy issues, especially on the peace process.
Managing a coalition composed of diverse personalities and competing interests proved to be a difficult task for Netanyahu. From the outset, issues relating to the peace process—in particular, U.S. pressure on Israel to abide by the timetable of the Oslo agreements for implementing IDF redeployments in the West Bank—proved to be a source of significant internal strain for the Netanyahu government.
The Netanyahu period was marked primarily by limited activity concerning the Arab-Israeli conflict. Negotiations were focused on the territorial components of the Oslo Accords, and the pace was essentially dictated by Netanyahu’s and Likud’s preferences rather than those of the outgoing Labor government. The Wye and Hebron accords were emblematic of the process.
In January 1997, Israel and the PLO concluded an agreement, the Protocol Concerning the Redeployment in Hebron, to transfer control of 80 percent of the city to the Palestinian Authority, with the IDF remaining in the other 20 percent to protect Hebron’s Jewish population. In a Note for the Record dated January 15, Netanyahu and Arafat agreed that “the Oslo peace process must move forward to succeed” and thus they reaffirmed their commitment to implement the agreements already reached.
The January 1997 agreement to redeploy from Hebron led to the resignation of Science Minister Benjamin Begin (son of former Likud prime minister Menachem Begin). A year later, in January 1998, Foreign Minister David Levy resigned from the cabinet, in part over the pace of negotiations with the Palestinians and Levy’s role in those negotiations.
The Wye River Memorandum was signed in Washington, D.C., on October 23, 1998, by Israel and the PLO following a nine-day summit meeting hosted by U.S. president Bill Clinton at the Wye Plantation in Maryland. The agreements spelled out specific steps to facilitate the earlier accords between Israel and the PLO.
The memorandum effectively provided for the implementation of the terms of the Oslo II accords of September 1995 and the Hebron Protocol of January 1997. Major aspects of the memorandum included the phased redeployment of IDF personnel from an additional 13 percent of the West Bank and the transfer to full Palestinian control (Area A) of another 14 percent of the West Bank that had heretofore been under joint Israeli-Palestinian jurisdiction (Area B);
pledges of enhanced efforts on the part of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the fighting of terrorism and the establishment of tripartite (Israeli, Palestinian, and U.S.) committees for verifying Palestinian compliance with these commitments; commitments by the PA to finally and unconditionally amend the Palestine National Covenant; and the immediate start of negotiations between Israel and the PA on permanent status issues such as Jerusalem, settlements, water, refugees, and the nature and precise configuration of political boundaries between Israel and areas of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip under the jurisdiction of the PA.
The Wye River Memorandum of October 23, 1998, was a further problem for Netanyahu who sought “political cover” for himself by appointing Ariel Sharon as foreign minister. Netanyahu also elicited additional commitments from Arafat and Clinton regarding Palestinian compliance with its obligations, in particular the combating of Hamas terrorism, in return for further IDF redeployments in the West Bank.
But this did not last very long. Faced with the prospect of being abandoned by much of his own coalition in a Knesset vote of no confidence over his handling of the peace process, Netanyahu on December 21, 1998, supported a bill to dissolve the Knesset for early elections. An agreement was eventually reached to hold new prime ministerial elections and elections to the 15th Knesset on May 17, 1999.