Page last updated at 09:25 GMT, Saturday, 7 February 2009

Can Israel's right deliver peace?

By Tim Franks
BBC News, Jerusalem

Israeli settlement of Ofra in the West Bank
Some settlers want Israel to annex the West Bank

It took several minutes before Benjamin Netanyahu was able to speak.

On that bright afternoon, he had arrived at the City of David, the archaeological site in Jerusalem close to the Old City.

It is a place which the rest of the world regards as occupied territory.

Around Mr Netanyahu was a seething, noisy, bad-tempered mass of cameramen and reporters. They pressed in on him from all sides.

Mr Netanyahu's PR representatives finally managed to persuade them to step back one metre.

It was just enough space for the man whom most Israelis expect to be their next prime minister after general elections on 10 February to deliver his message.

"[For] 3,000 years, this place has been the capital of the Jewish people. And a government of Likud will keep Jerusalem united, under Israeli sovereignty," he said.

But history has shown that time and again, the Israeli right has indeed moved.

Right-wing withdrawals

To begin with, there was Menachem Begin, the first right-wing Israeli prime minister.

Thirty years ago, he concluded a peace treaty with Egypt, which involved Israel withdrawing from the Sinai peninsula - a huge area Israel had conquered in the 1967 war.

In the nineties, in his first tenure as prime minister, Mr Netanyahu agreed to hand over parts of the West Bank, and much of Hebron, to Palestinian control.

File photograph of Silvan Shalom
History shows that we always have better relations with the Arab world and the Palestinians, than those coming from the left
Silvan Shalom
Israeli politician

Four years ago, Ariel Sharon took Israeli settlers out of Gaza.

Neither of these withdrawals brought a peace deal closer.

Indeed, both men won power, in part, precisely because they positioned themselves as rejecting the Oslo accords of the early nineties.

And the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the Labour prime minister who signed those accords, robbed history of discovering whether significant territorial concessions would have followed.

What we do know is that the withdrawals ordered by Mr Netanyahu and Mr Sharon were reviled by those on the hard right.

And, according to Silvan Shalom, deputy prime minister and foreign minister in the last Likud government, they exploded the myth of the left as the only partners of peace.

"History shows us that the leftists never withdrew from an inch of any territory," he says, from his 29th-storey office in Tel Aviv.

He adds quickly that he is not suggesting that the next Israeli government should now withdraw from any territory.

"But I would like you to know that anyone who is trying to blame us, that if we come to power, there will be a confrontation with the Palestinians, they're absolutely wrong. History shows that we always have better relations with the Arab world and the Palestinians, than those coming from the left," he says.

'No regrets'

And what of those who have had to do the leaving? Amnon Be'eri is one of them: he marks, on a map above his desk, the point in the northern Sinai where he and his family spent his teenage years.

The settlement of Yamit was home to about 2,500 people.

Mr Be'eri says it was idyllic, "an amazing beach - wide, thick sand, tropical... the ultimate". For his Bar Mitzvah, his parents bought him a surfboard.

But despite the attractions, he says that he and the rest of his family willingly left, when the the Sinai was traded in 1982 for a peace agreement between Israel and Egypt.

A man walks past an election poster for Benjamin Netanyahu
Mr Netanyahu is leading the right-wing Likud party into general elections

"At least in our family," he recalls, "we never regretted it.

"I think it was a good price to pay for peace. Egypt was the largest and strongest enemy of Israel, and since the withdrawal from the Sinai, it's a very reliable and stable border."

The sense of certainty that the right will win this election runs across Israel, and into places such as Ofra, one of the longest-established settlements in the West Bank.

You might expect that the settlers here would be delight at the apparent resurgence of the right.

But Yisrael Harel, a former chairman of the settlers' association, is not celebrating.

Netanyahu is a man who thinks America, he grew up in America
Tom Segev
Israeli historian

His dream, and that of other ideological settlers, that the Israeli government will announce the annexation of the West Bank, remains distant, he says.

Indeed, he has a warning, which he delivers only slightly tongue-in-cheek.

"Historically, only leaders from the so-called right have made territorial concessions. So paradoxically - although for me it's not a paradox, because no leader of the left will dare to do it - those who are pro-concessions to the Arabs should vote Netanyahu."

Which is not to say that Mr Netanyahu, should he become prime minister, would be about to withdraw from the West Bank.

Peace with Syria?

But further north, there are the Golan Heights. The Golan is not part of historic Palestine; rather, it was conquered from Syria in the war of 1967.

And as Tom Segev, one of Israel's foremost historians, points out, should the Americans be keen to push a peace deal with Syria, Mr Netanyahu might be receptive.

"Netanyahu is a man who thinks America, he grew up in America," says Mr Segev.

"He may well go for a whole new strategy of moving Syria away from Iran. And in that context he may well go for a peace agreement that inevitably would involve the withdrawal of Israelis from the Golan."

Likud insists that withdrawal from anywhere is not part of its platform.

Syrians on the border with the Golan Heights
A peace deal with Syria would mean a withdrawal from the Golan Heights

And all the signs are that Israel has shifted to the right, in large part because many Israelis no longer believe further peace agreements are a serious prospect.

But leading Israeli statistics expert Prof Camil Fuchs says that, while there may currently be majorities against withdrawing from the West Bank or the Golan, or the division of Jerusalem, these majorities may be soft, particularly when it comes to negotiations with Syria.

"In terms of the Golan, today the public opinion is against withdrawal," he says.

"But I don't believe there is a strong opposition if there is a real peace deal with Syria."

Prof Fuchs draws a comparison with the failure of Israel's unilateral withdrawal from Gaza to bring peace.

"If you do an agreement with Syria, Syria will be behind this treaty, and they are not going to open fire," he says.

Whatever the outcome of this election, few Israelis are predicting significant diplomatic shifts any time soon.

But Israeli history has shown that negotiating deals and granting concessions is not just the preserve of the left.

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