Thousands of people have been clicking onto a YouTube clip of a brash 28-year-old named "Ben Nitay," testifying in a college mock court that there's no need for a Palestinian state. Many would like to see in this old clip the current views of Israel's new prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. But as Ariel Sharon once said regarding his own transformation from critic to premier: "What one can't see from 'there,' one sees very clearly from 'here.' "
That said, it's time to take a closer look into the record of Netanyahu's positions when he was prime minister and then a minister in Sharon's government.
Netanyahu's previous term as prime minister a decade ago, from 1996 to 1999, is remembered bitterly by many in the national camp and the settler movement.
He had campaigned for office in the spring of 1996 as a vigorous opponent of the Oslo accords, but shortly after becoming premier in June, he signed an agreement to withdraw from 80 percent of Hebron and roll back Israel's presence in the West Bank in three further redeployments. On Jan. 15, 1997, seven months into his term, he was pictured shaking Yasser Arafat's hand, witnessed by U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher, against the opposition of half his Cabinet.
On Oct. 23, 1998, Netanyahu reached out to Arafat, this time in the company of President Clinton on the White House lawn, signing the Wye River Memorandum in which he agreed to withdraw the Israel Defense Force from 13.1 percent of the disputed territory, and give the PLO a measure of control over 41 percent of the West Bank and 80 percent of Gaza.
Yossi Ben Aharon, a prominent figure on Israel's right, accused Netanyahu of a "great betrayal." Former Likud Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir called him a "traitor to the nationalist movement."
Yossi Beilin, an icon of the left, also saw the importance of Netanyahu's decision, but from the opposing point of view. He said that Netanyahu gave right-wing legitimacy "to the peace process, to the idea of territorial concessions, to the PLO and to Arafat."
Netanyahu actualized the national consensus of which Yitzhak Rabin could only dream. The Knesset had approved Rabin's Oslo I and II accords by the narrowest of margins, 61-60 and 61-59, but it overwhelmingly endorsed Netanyahu's Hebron agreement by 87-17.
During his term as chief, Netanyahu also took bold steps on the Syrian front. In late 1998, he authorized businessman Ronald S. Lauder to conduct secret negotiations with Syrian President Hafez Assad, agreeing to extensive territorial concessions on the Golan Heights. Dennis Ross says that Netanyahu authorized "withdrawal to a commonly agreed border based on the June 4, 1967 lines."
Later, as finance minister under Sharon, Netanyahu voted four times in favor of the historic decision to withdraw all 8,000 Jewish settlers and Israeli soldiers from Gaza. Subsequently, Netanyahu split with Sharon and opposed implementation of the disengagement plan, but his objections could hardly be described as opposition to the basic principle of withdrawal.
A few weeks ago, Netanyahu noted to The Washington Post that "I'm the person who did the Wye agreement and the Hebron agreement in the search for peace."
In principle, Netanyahu is not opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state. Like the majority of the Israeli public, he believes that "any Palestinian state that would be formed under the current conditions would become an Iranian state as we saw happen in Gaza." But this objection is based on observed Palestinian behavior, rather than principled opposition to statehood.
When Netanyahu -- and the Israeli public -- are convinced that a real chance for peace exists, the record shows that they will seize the opportunity.
Jack Rosen is chairman of the American Council for World Jewry.