Remember the 1985 film “Back to the Future”? Of course you do. One of the charming elements of that movie was the recreation of an imaginary American town in the year 1955. It cost Hollywood millions of dollars and required the talents of experts — but the new Israeli government has done far better than that. At far less cost and in less than two months, Prime Minister Binyamin “Bibi” Netanyahu has created a nearly perfect replica of the Middle East in the fall of 1991.
Now 1991 was an interesting year. For Israelis, it began and ended with historic moments. January 1991 marked the beginning of the Gulf War. The end of October saw the convening of the Middle East Peace Conference in Madrid. The Middle East seemed to be changed forever by those two events in that fateful year.
Well, appearances can be deceptive. And nothing is forever, if you don’t want it to be.
In less than two months in power, the Netanyahu government has seemingly halted the turning of the earth on its axis and spun it back around. We seem to live in a time machine, headed back at the speed of light not to some clever reconstruction of an American town in 1955, but to the reality of the blood-soaked and dangerous Middle East of five years ago.
If you liked 1991, you can get ready to enjoy it all over again. Just look at some of the highlights of last week’s news:
* Palestinian Arab terrorists murder innocent Jews — prompting not angry protest demonstrations by the extreme Right (as happened throughout the years 1992-96) but by a yawn. A closure on the occupied territories is imposed for the weekend — and promptly lifted. Bibi has brought Israel its much longed for “peace with security” without lifting a finger — and without increasing by one iota anyone’s security.
* Israeli officials and Jordan’s King Hussein conduct secret meetings in London — because Hussein has good reason not be seen with Israelis in public. (The initial Jordanian willingness to deal with Netanyahu brought a storm of criticism in the Arab world upon the Hashemite monarch. Hussein, ever the survivor, backed down.)
* Superminister Arik Sharon builds obstacles to peace throughout the occupied territories. Hundreds of millions of shekels turn out to be available to enlarge existing settlements and build new ones — but subsidies for poor children, for health care, for education are cut.
* And Netanyahu continues to stall when it comes to implementing Oslo II agreements, first and foremost the redeployment of the IDF in Hebron. On Sunday evening, 4 August, it was learned that with all Netanyahu’s “discussions” and “re-evaluations” about Hebron, the new government has not yet bothered to ask the IDF to draw up new plans. Seems like either the original Labor government plan was OK — or that Netanyahu simply has no plans to leave Hebron.
“Whoa, buddy, hold it right there!” I can already imagine this week’s batch email on its way —
How can you say that nothing has changed since 1991? After all, Bibi — unlike Shamir — is not talking about deliberately stalling the peace process and letting it drag on just to appease the Americans . . .
That’s right. Bibi’s not talking about it. But he’s continuing in the tradition of his mentor, Yitzhak Shamir, and taking things easy. Redeployment in Hebron? Hey, what’s the rush? Bibi is stalling just as Shamir stalled, trying not to enrage the Americans, and yet taking advantage of Clinton’s paralysis in an election year. (Don’t forget that George Bush was able to force Israel into an international peace conference — just what Shamir swore would never happen — because 1991 was not an election year in the U.S.)
Okay, but there’s still progress in the peace process, right? After all, bodies of deceased Israeli soldiers are being turned over.
First of all, it’s a great thing that finally we’re learning what really happened to our MIAs. The fact that the Netanyahu government is reaping the rewards of years of quiet negotiations is unimportant. (No one denies that the information and bodies now being released by Hizbollah and by the Palestinian Authority are the result of a long process.) It’s the illusion that all this somehow confirms that the peace process is continuing which troubles me.
The peace process is not continuing. There are no signs that Netanyahu will continue it.
You know, for several hours after a human being dies, it appears that hair and fingernails continue to grow. (They don’t, actually; the body is just shriveling up). This grisly natural phenomenon has its counterpart in politics — in what’s happened to the peace process here. The peace process is dead. And all that we’re seeing is the apparent growth of hair on a corpse, nothing more.
Okay, but Bibi is going to Jordan this week. At least the peace process is moving forward on that front.
But there is no “peace process” with Jordan — and never was. Israel and Jordan have no serious disagreements, and have had none since King Hussein gave up all claim to the West Bank. It means nothing for Netanyahu to meet with the Hashemite rulers in Amman — in fact, Bibi was shmoozing with the Jordanian royal elite even while leader of the Opposition in Israel.
Where there is a need for a peace process, a real one, with actual enemies with whom Israel has long-standing disagreements — for example, Lebanon, Syria, and the Palestinians — there is no sign of any progress at all.
So what was so bad about 1991? Why not return to the good old days before Rabin and Peres starting making all those noises about peace?
This was, in essence, Likud’s campaign theme in 1996: let’s go back to the Shamir years. A bloody Intifada taking its daily toll of innocent lives — Palestinians and Israelis. A persistent conflict with no hope of solution between Israel and its neighbors. A strained relationship with an Administration in Washington which was not facing an election challenge. And the ever growing-threat of Arab regimes acquiring chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.
Remember Shamir’s advisor on terror, who was telling Israelis that there was no possibility of dialogue or peace with the Arabs and we should prepare for “100 years of terror”? And remember the pride you felt as you saw Israel dragged kicking and screaming to Madrid — that same Israel which had suffered so much from the wars with the Arab world but which seemed so reluctant to talk peace?
1991 — it was a hell of year (in both senses of the word). And it’s back.
Often when right-wing governments come to power, they call their changes a “revolution.” Mrs. Thatcher had her revolution and Ronald Reagan had his. Bibi, that most American politician, groomed in the age of television, is offering Israel not a revolution, but a rerun.